Amongst other things, here at CookiesHQ, I’m a project manager. For the past 4 years I’ve worked part-time, which comes with a set of challenges. So here are some tips for people who work for or with a part-time project manager.

Like many women, since having children, I have taken the decision to work part-time. There are many reasons why this set up makes sense for me and my family, a set up that feels like a luxury and an obligation at the same time. A luxury because, as director of CookiesHQ, I was pretty much free to choose my schedule and since I really wanted to enjoy the kids’ early years, I chose to only come back on a part-time basis. An obligation because the extortionate childcare costs mean that we couldn’t really afford to have 2 kids in nursery full-time anyway. I’ve now been working part-time for nearly 4 years, 3 or 4 days a week, and I feel that I’m ready to share some wisdom.

Project management vs business management

I have multiple roles in the company: looking after the staff, recruiting new staff, doing the payroll every month, keeping an eye on the accounts, scheduling the projects, writing proposals, planning projects. But there is one task in particular that is more tricky than the others when you work part-time: managing projects.

Why is project management different? Because most of my other tasks are repetitive, recurring or not as time-critical as managing a project. At CookiesHQ, most of our projects last between 6 and 12 weeks of development, preceded by a phase of planning and a followed by a phase of immediate ‘after-care’. So it’s a rather short period of time, but a very intense period of time, during which, with only 3 days a week at work, I struggle to do anything else on the side – which can quickly become an issue when you’re also managing the company.

Project management at CookiesHQ

Gemma, who started with us a couple of years ago when I was pregnant with baby #2, is our main PM. She has the highest number of projects to manage, simply because she took over from me when I went on maternity leave, and she’s done such a good job that we’ve decided to let her manage all these accounts. She manages between 2 to 4 projects at any one time, when I can only take 1 at a time.

Now, there’s another thing to consider when I talk about project management at CookiesHQ. It’s the fact that, given our small size, our staff are all multi-skilled and do multiple tasks. So, for us, project management also includes project planning, QA and a touch of UX and wireframing when needed, on top of the standard PM tasks (meeting with the client, managing 1 or 2 dev, adding all the cards in Pivotal Tracker, making sure we’re on track for delivery, resolving problems etc).

Challenges of a part-time project manager

Slower reaction

If anything major occurs on a day when I’m not working, then someone needs to cover for me. Now, I always make it clear to the client that I don’t work on certain days, and there is rarely something so critical that it cannot wait until the following day, but there needs to be a plan in place. And it’s not like I’m twiddling my thumbs on those days. I’m usually able to read and respond to emails, but I can’t just bring my laptop to playgroup or take a client’s call while feeding the kids.

Workload

This is what I find the most challenging. Reviewing everything that was done the day before, when I was not in the office, which includes reading emails, Basecamp messages and comments in Pivotal Tracker cards. Then trying to make sense of it all. And finally take actions and make sure the project moves forward. The more developers you have working on the project, the more difficult it gets. Thankfully, we don’t usually have more than 2 developers working on the same project.

Stress management

I’m easily stressed out, especially when deadlines are coming up. Fortunately, I manage to separate work life and family life well separated most of the time. However, this means that my weekly level of stress is concentrated in only 3 days. To deal with it, and to make sure it doesn’t impact the team too much, I like to work from home at least once a week. I find that working on my own on a regular basis helps me stay more relaxed and able to process information in a different way.

Little pieces of wisdom

There are a few things that I learned over the past 4 years, and that I’d like to share:

  1. Be super mega organised. No surprise there. Being organised is already, in my opinion, a quality that all PMs should have. It’s even more necessary when they work part-time. Try to not leave anything half-done if you’re not working the following day or it will be either hard to switch off or hard to know where you left off when you get back to it.
  2. Choose your days wisely. Initially I didn’t work Mondays, so I was missing the weekly standup with the team, and it made me feel like I was coming in mid-week all the time. Not a comfortable feeling, so I switched my Monday for Tuesday as soon as I could. Currently, I work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Mondays are essential for the weekly stand up with the team. Fridays are essential for project reviews. And Wednesdays just fall nicely in the middle.
  3. Don’t reply to emails on your days off, unless you really have to. Smartphones make it too easy to be at work, when we shouldn’t be. If, like me, you’re working part-time because you look after your children the rest of the week, then forget your emails and enjoy your little ones. Easier said than done, I totally agree, worth the extra effort though.
  4. Recognise and admit when you need help. I know that, when I have a project to manage, I struggle to do all of my other tasks. So lately Nic and Gemma have been helping me, Nic with company stuff, Gemma with the project, in particular with the QA and keeping Pivotal Tracker up-to-date. There’s just not enough time in the week for me to do it all, there’s nothing I can do about it, apart from accepting it and finding solutions to make it work.
  5. Work extra days when needed. Towards the end of the projects, I try to work more days during the week. That means trying to find alternative childcare – in our case, either Nic takes days off or we pay extra days at nursery, so I can be more available for the client, and the team, to deliver the project more peacefully.

From an employer’s perspective

I’m not sure I can judge the quality of my work objectively, so the best way for me to see if working part-time impacts my project management is to listen to clients’ feedback. And luckily, so far, none of them have had a negative word to say about the way we’ve managed their projects. Communication and the way we manage our projects are actually something all our clients praise us for.

However, there a few things to consider, as an employer, if you have a project manager who works part-time:

  1. Make sure the client has another point of contact or a way to be in touch even on the days when your PM is not working. They may never need it, but it’s important for the client to feel reassured and know that they can get in touch with someone even when their designated point of contact is out of the office.
  2. 5 days of work can’t fit in 3 days. It’s quite easy for me to say since I’m both in this instance, but a part-time project manager will not be able to achieve as much as a full-time one, and that needs to be taken into account for their workload. Having them work extra long hours, evenings and weekends really defeats the point of working part-time, doesn’t it?
  3. If you agree to your project manager working part-time, then you need to accommodate for the rest, for example making sure that they’re not left out of any major decision just because they didn’t work on that day.
  4. Pay a little more attention to the team’s dynamic. Although I don’t think the relationship with the client will be impacted, because clients always come first and we do our very best to keep them happy and informed, I believe that communication within the project team is not always optimal. It has improved since we introduced a project review meeting every Friday to report on progress and plan the next week of work, but I definitely need to work on being more available to the developers I work with.

On a more personal note, to conclude…

Working part-time is a choice. I was a project manager before I had kids, and I don’t see why I should have given up my job because I didn’t want or couldn’t come back full-time. I’m happy with that choice. Most of the time. Some weeks I’d like to have more time on my hands, to stop running around like a headless chicken, I’d like to be able to spend more time planning the next phase of work and to delegate less half-finished tasks to Gemma. And some day I will work full-time again and I will be able to do all of this. But right now, however stressful and frustrating the situation can sometimes be, it is the right choice, for me, for CookiesHQ, for my family.
I hope you found the advice useful, whether you’re a part-time project manager, wanting to be one, or employing one.

Picture ‘Communicate with our Hands’ by Death to Stock + Mumsy