Flexing Your Schedule

Nancy Kritzler loves her job. Since joining Rubin Postaer and Associates as a management supervisor, she’s advanced to vp, group account director, responsible for a national healthcare account. What makes her different from her colleagues? She works just three days a week and has ever since she joined the Santa Monica, Calif., shop in 1997.

“I have the best of both worlds: I get to spend more time with family, and I feel like I never skipped a beat in my career,” says Kritzler, who has two kids, ages 11 and 14.

Plenty of 60-hour-a-week types might dismiss Kritzler’s situation as an impossible dream. A high-level job? In account? Part-time? Certainly, there aren’t many like her in the agency business, where overworked staffers are putting in longer hours than ever. But many shops do allow some part-time schedules, letting people work less—about 30 hours or three days a week, but arrangements vary widely—while keeping the security (and sometimes benefits) of a full-time job.

And as the economy pick up steam and the older baby boomers retire, experts say more workers will be able to demand flexible schedules.

For agencies willing to make adjustments in how they meet client needs, part-timers offer a lower-cost way to staff up. “A part-time workforce is very useful in this iffy economy,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, which has less than 10 part-timers. He notes that it was during the dot-com expansion that “people got attuned to this flexibility, and so did employers.”

At RPA, which has about 550 employees in the U.S. and, typically, 8-10 part-timers, “we don’t think we get diminished value,” says evp of human resources Lark Baskerville. “Often, we find the part-time people are more focused and more efficient—they get things done in a shorter time period, because they know they have to. They are very motivated to make it work.”

What’s more, the setup can work in the most demanding departments if part-timers are flexible. Kritzler says she checks in on her off days and is never far from the phone. A creative director at RPA works four days a week, scheduling the one day off around key meetings.

While part-timers traditionally have been mothers with young kids, agencies say the demographic increasingly includes fathers and staffers with ailing parents, along with people pursuing their passions—working on a book, for example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the No. 1 reason workers request part-time hours is to return to school, with family obligations coming in second.

Of course, most agencies still view part-time schedules as a family-friendly perk, one that—used judiciously—allows them to hang on to valued employees. “People are our most important asset,” says Lander Brown, evp, director of human resources at Leo Burnett in Chicago, when asked why the agency is open to requests for part-time status. (Nearly 2 percent of its U.S. workforce is part-time.)

That thinking doesn’t fly at every agency. “Part-time schedules are very much a thing of the past here,” says Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of WestWayne in Atlanta. “There are so many daily crises. Clients are more nervous than ever. All the problems that should fall on the part-time person working on that account inevitably fall on the full-time person, and it isn’t fair. The full-time people got too cranky.”

Still, ad agencies need to prepare for what forecasters say will be America’s biggest labor shortage ever. (While 76 million baby boomers will be sauntering off to play Bingo this decade and next, only 45 million Gen-Xers are available to replace them, reports the Conference Board.) Experts predict this will force employers to allow people far more flexibility in how they work.

“We’re going to continue to see ad agencies adding people in part-time and contract positions, partly because it makes more business sense to be flexible,” says Roger Herman, a management consultant in Greensboro, N.C., and author of Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People. “But it will also happen because people want a different work arrangement. And corporate recruiters will become more aggressive in the race to attract top talent.”