Project-based Work for Work-Life Fit

My dad is a surgeon. Specializing in transplants, he was always on call and rarely home. As a teenager, I vowed to find work that would allow me to spend time with the family I hoped to one day have.

My journey to find work-life balance led me to MIT where I studied Chemical Engineering and Biology (I took a detour on the pre-med path). During college, I was almost always employed part-time. I worked at a retail shop on Newbury Street; I tutored students enrolled in Introductory Biology; and I supported Women’s Recruitment efforts for MIT Admissions. It was in my role at the Admissions Office, where I was on a team that created MIT’s first online resource for prospective female undergrads, that I saw the advantages of working independently and remotely on project-based work.

Then, graduation came and it was time to get a job. I stayed on campus to start my career at the MIT Technology Licensing Office. Working to commercialize MIT-developed technology through licensing agreements with startups and passionate entrepreneurs (along with the traditional big corporations) opened my eyes to entrepreneurship. And it gave me an intensive education in intellectual property, negotiation, business development, marketing, branding, product development, alternative dispute resolution, trademarks, accounting, communications and public relations, and much more.

So after a two-year stint at the TLO, I went off on my own path. I co-founded a real estate development, investment, and property management firm, where I focused on operations. That led to other business opportunities, which led me to what I’ve been doing for the last decade — helping people start new ventures and helping those small businesses grow.

I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to make a living by doing meaningful work, while also having time for what matters in life — family and friends.

But not everyone is so lucky.

I’ve seen too many friends make the difficult choice between a fulfilling career and time spent with their children. Some have chosen to return to their jobs on a part-time basis, only to find that their responsibilities are closer to full-time at part-time pay. Others have chosen to jump back in head first, relying on loving grandparents or nannies to help with family responsibilities. And some have chosen to stay at home for now and hope to return to a career when their youngest kids reach school-age. Of those in the last group, many are using volunteer roles to keep up their skills or work a few hours a week at hourly jobs that don’t utilize their education or experiences.

A study in 2005 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce found that 37 percent of highly qualified women have voluntarily left work at some point in their careers, and among mothers, that statistic rises to 43 percent. Pew Research estimated that there were over 370,000 highly educated and affluent stay at home moms in 2014. And it’s been well documented that those who choose to take a break from their traditional career are financially penalized when they return to the workforce (the “motherhood penalty”). According to the Center for Talent Innovation, women lose 16 percent of their earning power when they return to work, and one in four returns to fewer management responsibilities.

But my unusual career has shown me there is another way.

Project-based consulting.

Short-term project-based work with clear milestones and deliverables could allow mothers (and fathers, as well as daughters and sons caring for elderly parents) to find work-life fit. These caregivers could continue to earn an income, keep their skills up-to-date, while retaining time to care for their families. Those who no longer need to worry about the long-term costs of leaving the traditional workforce are happier and more satisfied; and happier caregivers lead to happier families, and a better society.

Project-based consultants are more efficient and productive, as productivity goes up for highly motivated workers in a part-time results-oriented environment. Moreover, project-based consulting provides businesses with highly qualified (might I say, over qualified) freelancers at a discount. The attractive price is one of many reasons to hire freelance consultants.

I’m not the first to espouse the mutually beneficial nature of project-based work. In a 2013 article for the Atlantic, Paulette Light wrote:

Project-based work provides many benefits to both businesses and those re-entering. Freelancers don’t hit the bottom line as hard as because they aren’t paid benefits. With clear project descriptions, deadlines, and compensation, more moms who may be overqualified for a position might decide that they are willing to help out with a project because it meets their needs in the short term. I am sure that many moms will even step up to do a project even at the cost of their family because the timing is only temporary. As the business and the mom work together more, maybe a full-time job will come of it when all parties understand the value.

I think it’s safe to say that the benefits of project-based work are clear, for mothers, families, and businesses.

So let’s quantify the benefits.

The Power of Parity by McKinsey Global Institute

In 2015, McKinsey Global Institute found that advancing women’s equality in North America and Oceania alone could add $3.1 trillion to $5.3 trillion to the GDP in those regions by 2025. By increasing the number of women in the workforce, reducing the motherhood penalty, and improving gender equality using 12 other outcome-based indicators, the potential increase to GDP in this region is equivalent to the current GDP of Japan or Germany.

A recent study by Danielle Lindemann, Carly Rush, and Steven Tepper found that artistic careers — that is, those in performing arts, design, art history, writing, film, the visual arts, and music — did not have the wage penalty associated with motherhood that is found in most other industries. They theorized that this lack of penalty was due to the flexibility in employment as well as the project-based nature of artistic work. So increasing the number of women engaged in project-based work would surely decrease the motherhood penalty, getting us one step closer to gender wage parity.

Now let’s go back to the statistics of highly qualified women — previously defined as those with a graduate degree, a professional degree, or a high-honors undergraduate degree — who have left the traditional workforce. In 1982 to 2013, 44.1 million college degrees were granted to women. Let’s assume that five percent attended the top 40 schools and that 37 percent of women voluntarily leave work; that leaves 815,850 highly educated women between the ages of 24 and 55 who have left the traditional workforce.

Let’s say that project-based consulting could allow these women to work as much as they want to. The average American with a full-time job works 47 hours per week. Let’s assume that the working moms in this country spend 28 hours per week on family responsibilities, as they do across the pond. So if we assume that moms want to work only as many hours as is the difference between normal full-time employment and is needed to fulfill family responsibilities, that means moms would be happy to spend 19 hours per week working. That seems low to me, given an informal survey of friends who are moms. My unscientific survey leads me to believe that mothers would like to generally work from the hours of 9am to 1pm, or approximately 5 hours a day, leaving them time to drop the kids off, pick them up and take them to after school activities, and take care of all other tasks to run a household. So we can guess that moms would like to work 19 to 25 hours per week.

Now, independent consultants earn an average annual salary of $97,000. Let’s assume the average independent consultant works 40 hours per week and takes 6 to 8 weeks off each year. (What’s the point of working for yourself, if not to finally take time off? Besides, taking vacations results in lower stress as well as more happiness at work and home and greater success at work.) So, if each of the 815,850 highly educated women who have left the workforce were able to work 19 to 25 hours per week and earn income proportional to the average independent consultant’s salary, they could be earning about $46K to $61K each year. That income could allow families to be more stable, to create emergency funds.

Collectively, that’s $37.6 billion to $49.5 billion worth of paid work that project-based consulting could enable. And that’s just the 815,850 women with degrees from the top 40 colleges who have left the workforce.

Imagine how high that number would be if we did the same calculation for all women with college degrees who have left the workforce; all 16.3 million women. That increases those values to $751 billion to $989 billion.

Then imagine if we added the increasing number of men who are choosing to stay home.

What now?

For caregivers seeking work-life fit

If you are a caregiver who has left or wants to leave the traditional workforce, update your LinkedIn profile summary to state your interest in project-based work. If you are already doing project-based work, mentor would-be project-based consultants. Those who have a gap in their work history will need help understanding current business practices, coaching to regain their confidence, assistance with resume writing, and support to determine how their skills translate to clearly defined projects.

Take advantage of MOOCs like Coursera, EdX, and NovoEd, and resources like OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, Code Academy, and Skillcrush to keep up your skills and acquire new ones — I’m passionate about lifelong learning / continuous education.

For business leaders who want to support work-life fit

If you work for a small or medium sized business and are in a position to retain project-based consultants, use your social capital within your company to do so. Then, convince your peers to do the same. Your employer will thank you.

If you own a business, start engaging highly educated and experienced moms (and dads, as well as daughters and sons) who have left the traditional workforce on project-based work. Like me, they could perform strategic analyses, craft a go-to-market strategy or customer acquisition strategy, assess your competition, determine where to cut costs, generate blog posts, manage your social media, guide you through a difficult negotiation, or help you decide whether to enter a new market or create a new product. Others could help you create financial models, craft a marketing or communications strategy, write PR pieces, assist with legal issues, plan events, and help with the hundreds of other things small businesses need help with. Small businesses like yours are the economic engine of our country, driving innovation and growth.

Still not sure how project-based consultants could help you manage and grow your business? Contact me and I’ll be happy to help you brainstorm.

Whatever the project, be clear with your goals and expectations to ensure you will be happy with the results.

Sites like HourlyNerd by Catalant, SpareHire, MBA and Company, Hillgate, Toptal Business (formerly Skillbridge) and 79 Studios’ own FlexTeam make it easier and more affordable for small businesses to find highly qualified project-based consultants.

Of these, only FlexTeam focuses on moms who have left the traditional workforce. Regardless of the method you use to find workers, helping to make project-based consulting commonplace will help more people find work-life balance, which will surely benefit us all. This is the future of work.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.