Job protection schemes
Covid-19 has caused a severe shock to the UK economy, with the highest levels of unemployment since the 1980s predicted. Part-time work is increasingly, and internationally, recognised as an alternative to unemployment in a recession, avoiding the costs of benefit payments, the loss of tax receipts and some of the social and health costs of unemployment, whilst retaining skills in the economy.
In other European countries, governments have used job protection schemes for many decades to top up employees’ pay when employers have reduced their working hours in response to economic downturns (short-time working). This (part) employment avoids the economic and social costs of widespread unemployment. In the UK, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), was introduced in March 2020, and from July 2020, allowed for flexible (part-time) furloughing of staff. For many employers this effectively represented a subsidised experiment in part-time working, albeit introduced for economic reasons, rather than in response to employee demand.
During the pandemic, ‘enforced experiments’ have been found to alter employers’ perceptions of the feasibility of other types of flexible working, particularly working from home. This research examines the impact of experimenting with part-time working.
Part-time working in the UK
Pre-pandemic, part-time working was by no means uncommon in the UK, with approximately one in four employees working part-time, 90% of them voluntarily. In addition, at least 10% of full-time workers report that they would prefer to work part-time but feel they can’t, often citing resistance from employers.
Employers often struggle to create quality part-time jobs at higher skill levels, so part-time jobs are often lower quality, and concentrated at lower skill levels. Employers may be reluctant to create quality part-time jobs for several reasons. Some employers cite inconveniences and costs, such as managing continuity of service, handovers between employees, scheduling meetings, and the fixed costs of recruitment, training and participation in team meetings. Some managers may also believe that part-time working indicates lower levels of employee commitment, or see it as only appropriate for lower-level jobs. There is therefore a mismatch between the needs of individuals and organisational practice. As a result, supportive organisational and government policies may prove difficult to implement.
The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council under the UKRI Ideas to Address Covid-19 call. The project has been designed to inform both organisational and government policy. The findings will have implications for government policy relating to the role of part-time working in the economic recovery and the support government needs to provide for employers to achieve this. In the longer term, a growth in quality part-time jobs will enable more diverse participation in employment, creating more inclusive workplaces for those with caring responsibilities, for older workers and those with disabilities. This will in turn impact gender equality, since women account for more than three quarters of part-time workers in the UK, and currently suffer occupational downgrading and career constraints when shifting to part-time working.
Our findings will also inform organisational practice via reports, blogs, webinars and events for employers.
Objectives, timetable and design
This research is designed to examine employers’ experiences of using part-time working under the flexible furlough scheme and whether, and how, this has changed their perceptions of its feasibility. We are also exploring the impact of employers’ experiences on their policies and actions.
Following an evidence review, data will be collected by means of semi-structured interviews with managers in selected sectors at two time points, together with a large-scale, representative survey, run in conjunction with our project collaborators, the CBI. The analysis of this data will inform understanding of employer responses and the extent to which their perceptions and practices have changed.
The experts on the steering group will meet throughout the project to shape the research and ensure impact among policy makers and employers. This includes advising on sectors and sites for data collection, assisting with sense-making of the findings, and recommending routes to impact.
The project started in March 2021 and will run until September 2022.
 CIPD (2021) Flexible working: lessons from the pandemic – From the ‘nature’ of the work to the design of work.
 ONS (2020) Table EMP01: Full-time, part-time and temporary workers: People by Full-time, part-time and temporary workers (seasonally adjusted). View link.
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