The furlough scheme brought in by the Government during the Covid-19 pandemic did not just save millions of people from unemployment and economic hardship, but may have had a lasting effect on the ways in which their employers allow them to work in the future, according to a new report out today (25 May).

Introduced in March 2020, and further modified in July that year to allow for a part-time furlough option, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) enabled organisations to reclaim up to 80% of the wage costs of employees that could not work during the pandemic.

Successful in avoiding mass redundancies during a time of crisis, new research from Cranfield School of Management and the CBI has found the scheme may also have ongoing benefits, by increasing employer openness to and knowledge of how to facilitate part-time working.

A ‘fundamental’ change in perceptions

A cross-sector survey of 208 UK businesses conducted in February this year found the furlough scheme – particularly the flexible element of it, which enabled employers to bring staff back to work on a part-time basis and for them to be furloughed the remainder of the time – had fundamentally changed employers’ perceptions around working practices, increasing openness to part-time working and other forms of flexible working as viable options for their business.

Key findings include:

  • Prior to the pandemic, most part-time working came about as the result of employee requests, with a proactive approach to recruiting new employees considered a secondary benefit. [1]
  • Post-pandemic, 62% of line managers say they are ‘more willing’ to consider employee requests for part-time working.
  • Almost all (96%) line managers surveyed said they were more flexible about where their employees worked, and 87% about how they scheduled their working hours.
  • Over half of the organisations surveyed expect remote working and flexible working to increase in their organisation over the next two years (60% and 58% respectively). A significant proportion (46%) also expect part-time working to increase.
  • Almost half (45%) believe the use of flexible furlough has helped line managers in their organisation learn how to design and manage part-time working more effectively.
  • Similarly, 46% believe line managers have learned how to better match resourcing with periods of peak demand for their business activity.

Of their findings, the report’s authors write: “As working practices settle into a ‘new normal’, there are indications that the shock caused by the pandemic, as well as use of the furlough scheme and adoption of more flexible working during the pandemic, will have lasting changes on working practices going forward. The survey reveals a mindset of greater adaptability, with line managers more willing to consider requests for part-time and other forms of flexible working.”

Working less than full time

Part-time working is an important feature of any labour market, offering greater choice in working arrangements for employees and widening participation in employment for those unable to work full time. It also brings benefits for employers, helping them retain existing employees and attract new ones, and allowing them to flex resource to meet changing business demands.

Pre-pandemic, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows just over a quarter (26%) of UK workers worked part time, some to meet their employer’s needs, and others to allow them to better balance their work with the requirements of their life outside employment.

‘Encouraging’ findings

Anna Leach, Deputy Chief Economist at the CBI, said: “It is clear that the CJRS has been more than just a ‘bridge to the other side’. Both the scheme and the pandemic itself have fostered (and, in some cases, accelerated) large shifts in the nature of work and attitudes towards it.

“We know that the future of work is a key priority for our members, who are conscious of their employees’ renewed focus on work-life balance and desire for more flexibility around the location and organisation of their work.

“These findings show that changes in working practices, and attitudes towards them, are very much underway. It is particularly encouraging to see that this shift in attitudes starts from a positive place, with the majority of the organisational representatives surveyed reporting that the financial wellbeing of their organisation was good or very good, and expected to remain positive over the next two years at least. This shows their increased openness to part time and flexible working is borne out of a genuine desire to do better, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to difficult times."

Professor Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, said: “The flexible element of the furlough scheme effectively marked a ‘forced experiment’ in part-time working for many employers that had little previous experience 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’, but these survey findings suggest that the practical experience of trying out part-time working has helped to overcome some of the perceived barriers for employers around its feasibility and how to implement it in practice.

“This is heartening, because there is evidence to suggest that more people would like to work part-time than currently do, as well as explore options for greater flexibility in the way in which they work.”

The future of flexible working

The report, The future of flexible working: Lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, was published as part of a broader research project being undertaken by Cranfield School of Management on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which it is hoped will inform future organisational and Government policy in this area. The project is being funded by the ESRC as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

More information about the project and its findings so far can be found on its dedicated webpages.

[1] Some 80% of whole-organisation representatives and 85% of line managers cited employee requests as an important factor. The ability to attract new employees was rated ‘important’ by 44% of whole organisation representatives and 42% of line managers.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.