It’s time to talk about part-time working. Specifically, how to work well as a part-time product manager, the benefits this arrangement brings to you and your company, and how to tackle the common perception that part-time simply cannot work.
The following suggestions are all very personal to me, although I have seen similar patterns with other part-time product managers. You could argue that my tips apply to full-time positions as well, and that makes total sense: Doing product management part-time simply amplifies the issues we all face every day.
I’m a part-time product manager. It might sound pretty simple, but it’s taken me some time to admit it. I didn’t want my other skills and abilities to be reduced to “just part-time”, implying that I’m not as committed or effective as a full-time employee. I was afraid that employers would lose interest and that I might make a fool of myself because of the perception that part-time product management cannot work. Then at one point, I decided to say it out loud: I’m a product manager, I do a good job, and I do it in 70% of the time.
It still took me two years to write this article. There was this small stubborn voice in the back of my head saying: It shouldn’t matter! It shouldn’t matter how long your working days are. It shouldn’t matter how much time you put into something. It’s all about the outcome! Plus, I didn’t want special treatment. But I soon figured out that I needed other people to act differently to make this work. There is a fine line between special treatment and moving a meeting so that everyone can attend.
I realized there is very little advice out there about this topic. At the same time, I noticed more product managers in my network going part-time for various reasons: children, hobbies, health issues etc. Then the article about the dangerous rise of “crazy-busy” product managers got lots of attention in my network, and I noticed a shift in perception. Suddenly the 60-hour week described 10 years ago in Marty Cagan‘s “Inspired” didn’t seem quite right any more.
But First, Coffee: It’s all About Relationships
Working part-time somehow increases your urge to be productive, and that can be a pretty good thing. You’ll find yourself going into work and switching on your laser focus. If you are not already good at prioritizing, you‘ll soon be ruthless about spending your time well.
But, as I had to find out, my laser focus missed some rather important areas. As a product manager, having a coffee and a chat is part of your work. It’s about building relationships. When I first started working part-time, I was in and out of work. I got into the office, buckled down without a break and left right on time to pick up my child. I didn’t have lunch breaks. I was living off the relationships I had built before my parental leave, but at some time this stopped working. I was too far away from the team. I decided that I needed to make time for building and maintaining relationships. Something else needed to wait. But what?
Fight the Urge to get Everything Done
There is still a perception that product managers are the CEO of the product, constantly in demand and always overworked. There are many angles to the job and different tasks to take care of, so it feels like you can always do more. And you probably could. Will it make you more effective? Probably not. Trying to do everything is a trap. I keep telling myself that product management is a bit like chasing rabbits: If you go down every rabbit hole, you won’t see the daylight again any time soon.
So, at some point, I started to set myself a work in progress limit. I usually do some firefighting during the day, but if something comes up while I am working on another task, I put it in my calendar with a fixed time slot. I try to make sure that I block out time for bigger tasks which are either most urgent or most important right now. If I’ve completed them, I’ll check again, and some of the stuff that seemed important three days ago will have disappeared.
Enable Your Team
There is also the perception that a product manager takes all the decisions and so always needs to be there. I had that discussion at the beginning of a big project where an agile coach was really concerned that it couldn’t work with me working part-time. What if the developers had questions and I wasn’t there?
Here’s my take on this: I always wanted to work in teams where there was enough trust and alignment so that everyone could take decisions themselves if they needed to. I see it as my main job to create alignment and guide the team in the right direction, not to take every decision, especially when it comes to technical or design-related questions. My absence shouldn’t mean that other team members cannot do their jobs. It‘s always good to have some clarity about availability, but that applies for everybody in the team. We have all the usual meetings like refinements and stand-ups in the morning when the energy level is high.
Be Okay With Being Away
Even if you find a good way to accommodate your team meetings, there will still be stuff you miss out on – all-hands, company meetings, you name it. You can decide to skip some meetings or send one of your team members (another good way to enable your team), but there are others where it really makes sense for you to be there.
In the best case, your company culture is willing to accommodate part-time employees. In some companies (especially the meeting-heavy ones) there’s the persistent belief that you can’t make it work for everyone and part-timers just have to deal with it. In this case you might want to find colleagues who face the same issues to help as leverage when making your case. If the person scheduling the meeting is not responsive, you can suggest to them to find a better slot that suits everyone. It won’t happen automatically, so you will need to ask again and again.
Besides missing out on meetings, be prepared to miss out on information in general. You are not there all the time and might not be able to read every announcement, so some things will just go over your head. For me, that was one of the hardest parts about working part-time. It made me feel insecure and I felt I was missing the complete picture. So it helps to get some colleagues you trust to pass along important pieces of information and the water-cooler talk in situations like this. You should also ask your people manager to make sure you don’t miss anything important.
Don’t Feel Guilty
Despite all the challenges described above, I’ve seen highly effective part-time product managers who are masters at getting stuff done. There are good reasons for them to be proud of this accomplishment, but I’ve noticed a tendency among part-time employees to somehow feel bad about it. If there’s one piece of advice you should take away from this article it would be to work on your part-time self-esteem.
You took the conscious decision to work part-time and you are putting lots of energy into making it work. Are you really such a burden on others? Is it really too much to ask someone to move a meeting so you can attend? Would they really be better off without you?
Don’t forget: Your colleagues might be jealous of your free time (and will tell you so when you rush out of the office to pick up your child), but they probably won’t be jealous of your paycheck. I think earning less (maybe so that you can raise your children) is humbling enough. You shouldn’t feel bad for being an inconvenience to others. And your colleagues and company shouldn’t make you feel that way, either.
Why Should Companies Care?
Part-time product managers can be a very good deal. They can deliver most of the scope and bring in much-needed expertise, but they cost less. They might be a solution to face the shortage of skilled product managers in Europe. They are committed to their jobs because their companies enable them to work part-time, which is not the case everywhere. Even in Germany, where companies above a certain size are legally obliged to allow you to reduce your working time, only 1% of the job postings for product managers are for part-time jobs.
This strikes me as odd: I simply cannot believe that 99% of the products out there need a full-time product manager. Of course there are certain products which come with a heavy workload, depending on the scope, team size and amount of stakeholder interactions. I’m not saying that you should put part-time product managers on your biggest, time-sensitive projects that involve pretty much the entire company. But for smaller products or teams, one committed part-time product manager who takes care of the team and can focus on the product 100% might very well be the best option. So if you are a people manager or an employee wondering how to make part-time work for your company, check out this helpful article on Quartz.
What’s Left to say?
In the end, I can only speak for myself: I’m happy with the part-time set-up and the support I get from my company, I’m dedicated to my job and I can bring my best self to work every day. The things I learned in my part-time work will stay with me forever, even if I decide to go back to a full-time position one day.
After all, I strongly believe that product managers should get more flexibility when it comes to finding a job that truly matches their lives. We are not quite there yet, but the part-time product community will continue to grow. And soon, it will be a totally normal thing to say: I am a part-time product manager!