Plenty of people would like to work fewer hours than they are currently working. That’s why part-time work remains a popular option.
It can work in some organizations. But in many client-facing industries (consulting, finance, law, etc.), the business model makes working part-time difficult. The whole value proposition is that a client service team parachutes in, throws resources against a problem, and solves it quickly. Clients who pay steep fees want people to be available when and where they want them. While some people set boundaries, the overall culture can conspire against this.
But what if you took the long view? Working fewer hours per week, every week, isn’t the only way to work less. You can also look at how many hours you work over the course of a year. Doing that could be more compatible with the way client-facing jobs actually work.
Here’s the basic idea: When you’re on, you’re on. You go all in during an nine-week client engagement, traveling where you need to go, doing team problem solving on Saturdays, and sitting through 6:30-8:00 p.m. meetings.
Then you take time off between engagements to recuperate. Being nine weeks on and three weeks off keeps your total hours lower. If you work 60 hours per week for nine weeks, and then zero hours per week for three, you’ve averaged out to a reasonable 45.
Of course, there are complications with this set-up, which is why most organizations don’t push annualized hours as part of their work/life balance menus.
First, a big reason people want to work less is that they have children at home. A fully-on, fully-off schedule doesn’t help with setting regular childcare hours or getting into family routines. We tend to schedule our lives in weeks, not seasons.
Second, in any professional services firm, people who get a reputation for being really good will have project managers calling to get them re-staffed immediately after they roll off other projects. Taking time off between engagements still requires setting boundaries. That’s hard to do when a manager you admire is telling you that this next project could ignite your career.
But there would be upsides too. Big chunks of time off make better vacations possible. You could do real volunteer work, take classes, or tackle big personal projects without squeezing that leisure into nights or weekends. That might make such a schedule appealing for younger workers who don’t have families but still want a life. Even families might be OK with a schedule that gave a parent big chunks of the summer off (when kids are out of school) or around the holidays, with that parent simply not being around as much when school is in session.
Under this set-up, instead of trying to negotiate boundaries daily, you’d keep the clients happy when you’re on, and yourself happy when you’re off. There are lots of ways to achieve work/life balance, and this could be one.