By Professor Clare Kelliher, Dr Charlotte Gascoigne, and Dr Pierre Walthery

Together, we have dedicated our careers to research and consultancy in the area of flexible working, with particular emphasis on part-time working. We’ve helped leaders to implement all types of flexible and part-time working in their organisations, including in those sectors considered ‘difficult to flex’ such as construction, teaching, retail and nursing.

The Covid-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on remote working, but we are focusing on another type of flexible working - part-time working. With one in four workers in the UK currently working part-time – the vast majority through preference – and with an estimated 10-25% of full-time workers wanting to do so but feeling that the option isn’t open to them, it seems odd that part-time is still sometimes regarded as a somewhat niche way of working.

Where, when and how much people work

It’s not always helpful or practical to define part-time with reference to a number of hours, when the number of hours that constitutes ‘full-time’ varies by role and occupation, with some people working up to 100-hour weeks in full-time employment. Conventionally, however, part-time is defined as 30 hours per week or less, with a commensurate reduction in salary.

Part-time working is also defined as one type of flexible working: if flexible working is ‘where, when and how much’ people work, part-time refers to the ‘how much’ element of that definition.

The pros and cons of part-time working for employers

Our review of the evidence on part-time work from the employers’ perspective presented a mixed picture. For employers, the benefits are most likely to be the attraction and retention of talent, particularly diverse talent, and in some sectors such as hospitality or retail, part-time working is used to cover extended operating hours and peak periods. However, there is evidence that a proportion of full-time workers have to accept a role below their experience and expertise if they are to achieve a part-time working arrangement. Employers sometimes struggle to create quality jobs at higher skills levels, with appropriately reduced workload and schedules so that the job can be worked on a genuinely part-time basis. We often hear fears about problems with service continuity, handovers that are lacking, and difficulties in scheduling meetings. Employers may also wish to avoid the proportionally higher quasi-fixed costs of part-time employment, such as recruitment and training. Evidence shows that some managers still see part-time working as reflecting lower levels of employee commitment.

A niche demographic?

There is a well-established stigma associated with working part-time for many people, and some employers still tend to regard it as inconvenient and expensive. Part-time working is still often associated with parents, mostly working mothers, while ‘normal’ practice is full-time working, with an expectation that people will want to work full time.

In reality, individuals – both men and women – may choose to move in and out of part-time working at different life stages, depending on, for example, caring responsibilities, health, and study commitments. However, part-time working is still disproportionately a female way to work: women constitute three quarters of the total population of part-time workers. Currently, one in three women in the UK works part time.

A year of experimentation

The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it many challenges for us all, but it also presented opportunities in some areas – opportunities to do things differently; to mix things up; to experiment.

The UK Government’s furlough provision – the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) to give it its proper title – was a lifeline for many businesses. It required employers to think about how they organised work and gave them the opportunity to design new and different ways of working.

The ‘flexible furlough’ element of the scheme, introduced as an amendment to the original CJRS in July 2020, allowed employers to have people part-working and part-furloughed. Running until September 2021, it effectively provided both employees and employers with an experiment in part-time working, albeit that people were still being paid for the time they were not working.

As part of our latest research, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, we have been exploring whether and how this enforced experiment in part-time working has affected employer attitudes to it. We wanted to know whether – now that they have tried it – employers would be more open to part-time working going forwards.

Focusing on the employer perspective was a very deliberate choice for us. Much has been written about employee demand for part-time working, but few people are asking employers whether those perceived barriers of cost and inconvenience are genuinely problematic, outweighing any benefits they see, or if there are deeper issues at play.

Learning about the feasibility of part-time working

We have spoken to HR and operational leaders in three of the sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic and therefore made most use of the furlough scheme: hospitality, manufacturing, and services.

The experience of having people work part-time as a result of the CJRS had changed some managers’ perceptions of what was possible in their business. It helped some participants to overcome an assumption that part-time working would be difficult to implement, as one operational director in a service business commented: “It [part-time working] has always been in the psyche, in the awareness, but stopped by this presumption that it won’t work…  [Flexible furlough] has forced you to do it and it’s disproved your bias, I suppose… broadened the horizons”.

Flexible furlough stimulated a range of other learnings about the feasibility of part-time working. Responsibility for redesigning work to facilitate part-time working (availability patterns, handovers, workload allocation) shifted from often being up to the individual, to the manager or the team as a whole, creating a more collaborative approach to work design. Often, when an individual goes part-time, it becomes effectively their responsibility to work out how their time is covered on the days they’re not working. This is something that we’ve highlighted in the past and it creates difficulties for part-time workers, and may potentially contribute to the reasons why some people who want to work part-time choose not to.

We found that multi-skilling was used to achieve flexibility of hours while staff were on furlough, and also to create business resilience during the pandemic (ensuring cover and avoiding gaps in service if staff were unwell), but could also be used, if required, to facilitate part-time working. For others, the learning was about extending part-time working to job roles that had previously been seen as difficult to perform on a part-time basis. In some service businesses, employers who had to decide when, and how much, to bring workers back from full-time furlough to part-time furlough took the opportunity to analyse their peak periods of demand, and so learned how to make more efficient use of part-time working. Another learning was developing a better performance measurement system to facilitate flexible furlough, which reassured managers about the productivity of their part-time workers – as well as having benefits for full-time workers.

The future of part-time working

As is always the case with any enforced situation, it can be a very different story when life returns to normal. The flexible furlough scheme has helped employers to see that part-time working may be feasible, but the basic business case for it may still rest upon whether employers can recruit and retain people on a full-time basis or are losing high quality, often expensively trained talent, because they can’t or won’t facilitate part-time working.

The ‘trickle down’ effect of a more open attitude to other types of flexible working, particularly working from home, during the pandemic, means we are all a bit more aware now of where, when and how much people are working. But some employers – and politicians – are encouraging a drift back towards more in-office working rather than the so-called hybrid model which many organisations have adopted following the lockdowns of the pandemic. We are now revisiting the employers we interviewed six months ago to see whether and how attitudes to part-time working have changed further. The next stage of our research is a wider survey of employers across all sectors that we’re conducting in collaboration with the CBI.

Overall, the research has shown that a practical trial, even an unplanned one, can change attitudes and challenge biases about part-time working, as well as highlighting the job design skills that managers need to implement part-time working. However, a change in working practices during flexible furlough was by no means sufficient for increased employer openness to part-time working, which was widely regarded as led by worker demand rather than by employers – possibly more so than other types of flexible working, where the business case may rest on, for example, saving office costs. It seems that further experimentation may be needed to ensure that disadvantaged demographic groups can access employment through quality part-time jobs, and avoid the downgrading and marginalisation often associated with a transition to part-time working.