Former employment relations minister Jo Swinson will head up the steering group for a Cranfield School of Management research project looking at the impact of so-called 'flexible furlough' during the coronavirus pandemic on employer attitudes to part-time working.

Funded by a £300,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation's rapid response to COVID-19, the 18-month project will seek to determine to what degree the part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) that allowed employees to work part-time and be part-time furloughed has changed perceptions and increased employer openness to part-time working going forwards.

The research will be guided by an expert steering group chaired by Jo Swinson and including representatives from the likes of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Trades Unions Congress (TUC), the Chartered Management Institute, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), and Government departments.

The research is designed to inform Government policy relating to the role of part-time working in the UK's economic recovery, as well as the encouragement and support that may need to be provided for employers to increase the availability of part-time roles in their workplace.

Jo Swinson, Visiting Professor at Cranfield School of Management and head of the research steering group, said: "Up until now, research into part-time working has focused on employees, looking at who would like to work part-time and why that is.

"To expand part-time working for those who want it across different roles and sectors, we also need to understand what employers think.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now, as the furlough scheme draws to a close, to find out to what extent trying out a different model of working has broken down some of the barriers to implementing part-time roles for employers.

"Previous research shows that providing more part-time roles in different industries could be hugely beneficial to the economy and to society, reducing unemployment and helping us to make the most of everyone's talents. So, let's find out what needs to change to make this happen."

Launched in July 2020, 'flexible furlough' provision under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), allowing employees to work part-time and be part-time furloughed, has effectively been an experiment in part-time working for many employers.

Employers have made extensive use of so-called 'flexible furlough' in some sectors, so the team will have a large evidence pool to explore, drawing on contacts in industry and conducting in-depth interviews with employers to examine their experiences of using part-time working under the scheme and whether this has changed their perceptions of its feasibility.

COVID-19 has caused a severe shock to the UK economy, with the highest level of unemployment since the 1980s predicted (Office for Budget Responsibility). Part-time working is increasingly recognised as an alternative to unemployment in a recession, avoiding the costs of benefit payments, loss of tax receipts and some social and health costs of unemployment, whilst retaining skills in the economy. However, despite demand from employees, particularly certain demographics, employers have often perceived part-time working as costly and inconvenient, struggling to create quality part-time jobs.

Around a quarter of the UK workforce works part-time, across all demographics. A large number of those in part-time employment are women – particularly working mothers – but it is also the choice of many older workers, and increasing numbers of men, as well as people with disabilities or health conditions that may prevent them from working full time.

The Cranfield research will be led by Professor Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation, together with research fellow Dr Charlotte Gascoigne.

Professor Kelliher said: "What we want to see is – now they've tried it – will employers continue to offer their staff genuine part-time working? There's a lot of talk about us entering a new world, particularly in relation to the way we work, but it remains to be seen to what extent that 'new world' will materialise after COVID."