A research project by Cranfield School of Management will seek to determine to what extent so-called ‘flexible furlough’ during the coronavirus pandemic has increased employer openness to part-time working.
Over 18 months, academics will investigate to what degree the ‘survival strategy’ adopted by many businesses during COVID-19 may influence the availability of part-time work going forwards. They hope their findings will influence 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.
The research is being 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.
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.
But the question remains whether participation in the scheme has improved employer perceptions of and openness to part-time working going forward, when the current crisis has passed.
Professor Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation, said: “We know from research that there are lots of people who would like to work part-time but feel they can’t, for one reason or another. Often, they cite employer resistance – either that it’s too inconvenient, it’s too expensive, or they just don’t want to do it.
“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.”
Around half of the people who have been on furlough over the past year have been on so-called ‘flexible furlough’, so the team hopes to 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.
Research fellow Dr Charlotte Gascoigne, who will work with Professor Kelliher on the project, said: “The concept of furlough is well-established in other countries, but what we’ve seen happen in the past year is really quite radical for the UK; the idea of paying or part-paying people to not work is completely alien to what has come before.
“The pandemic has shifted people’s perceptions of what is possible when it comes to remote working and home working, but my perception of part-time working is that it has always been the part of flexible working that has been regarded as most difficult.”
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, as well as people with disabilities or health conditions that may prevent them from working full time.
Dr Gascoigne continued: “Part-time working is something that a lot of different people move in and out of during different life stages. Sadly, though, as well as sometimes being hard to find, part-time roles can mean people working below their skill level – sometimes well below.
“So, there are all sorts of social reasons why this is an important topic in the long term, but enabling more people to work, and keeping skills in the workforce is also key to helping the UK economy recover.”