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Is part-time the forgotten flex?

Increased focus on remote and hybrid working risks overshadowing the flexibility that many people need: part-time.

By Melissa Jamieson, CEO, Timewise

The pandemic-driven focus on flexible and hybrid working is undoubtedly a good thing. Perceived barriers to the concept of flexibility have come crashing down in many organisations; evidence from the CIPD suggests that productivity and wellbeing have improved in many cases. And while we mustn’t ignore the huge challenges created by lockdown, particularly for those juggling family life and work, the overall sense is that many workplaces are undergoing serious transformation.

Indeed, there is no shortage of examples of organisations announcing big changes, from law firm A&O’s news that 40% of their work will be done remotely post-pandemic, to PwC’s ‘Deal’, which includes the freedom for employees to adapt their start and finish times or other parts of their working pattern. Nationwide, BP, Aviva, Vodafone… the list goes on.

But so far, within all the news about post-pandemic changes, there has been little, if anything, about part-time. So while organisations are widening their employees’ ability to work where and when they choose, they are not offering the same opportunities regarding the third pillar of flexible working: how much people work.

Why it’s a problem if part-time gets forgotten

The immediate question, of course, is does this matter? If hybrid working is popular with employees, and employers are gearing up to deliver it, do we need to worry about part-time?

In fact, it’s a real issue, with a range of consequences:

  • For many members of key groups, such as parents, carers and those with health issues, part-time is the only way to balance work with the rest of their lives. If the only flexibility available is remote working and adjusted start and finish times, they may drop out of the workforce completely. These groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, and need to be included in the recovery.
  • Whilst this is a societal issue, it is also a business one. Most companies have active D&I programmes, but if these aren’t underpinned by a commitment to flexible working that includes part-time, they will struggle to be fully inclusive. This will not only have a negative impact on their gender pay gap, but is also likely to impact their employer brand.
  • Furthermore, if companies don’t offer part-time roles, at all levels, they will struggle to attract, progress and keep people who want or need to work in this way. The knock-on effect of this is one we see played out frequently at senior levels, where a company’s board is too homogenous. This in turn can create an unrepresentative leadership team, which risks being guilty of groupthink and out of touch with what its employees want.
  • The same issue also applies to aligning with customers; as noted in a McKinsey report on diversity, “It makes sense that a diverse and inclusive employee base – with a range of approaches and perspectives – would be more competitive in a globalised economy.” Successful companies represent their customers, sharing their perspectives and understanding their needs.
  • It’s also worth remembering that the pandemic has encouraged many people to re-evaluate their priorities and work-life balance; there is also a growing number of younger employees who are seeking to work less, to free up time to pursue passion projects. In the war on talent, employers who offer part-time opportunities will have the pick of the crop.
  • And at a wider level, for certain sectors (such as retail and hospitality), or certain roles (such as those on the frontline) remote working is simply not an option. As my colleague Emma Stewart has noted, if part-time is not considered or championed in these areas, we risk developing a two-tier workforce, split into flex haves and have-nots.

Now more than ever, we need to focus on part-time

Left unchecked, then, this lack of focus on part-time roles will have an impact on workplace issues such as diversity and the gender pay gap, as well as societal ones including in-work poverty and social inequality.

But we’re not suggesting that hybrid working should be put on the back burner; we’re all for it, and are helping many organisations get it right. We’re simply saying that part-time is an equally valid arrangement, which should be included in any re-evaluation of the workplace. In the wake of the pandemic, in which the groups that traditionally need part-time the most have been the hardest hit, considering the future of work at a strategic level within your business is more important than ever.

So, for companies who recognise the importance of including or increasing part-time opportunities alongside full-time flex, what are the next steps? Here are some starting points for leaders and HR teams:

  • Lead from the top. Change the conversation so that part-time isn’t seen as part committed. Share stories of people who are making a success of working part-time. Ideally, have part-time role models on your board or at senior levels.
  • Facilitate part-time job design and support line managers. Don’t just assume you can lop a day off the working week and expect the same outputs. Upskill managers to understand how to design properly part-time jobs, and manage teams with a mix of part-time and full-time employees. We can help.
  • Make part-time roles available at all levels. This will allow talented employees who need to work part-time to stay and progress, bringing their skills, experience and mindsets with them.
  • Openly advertise jobs as part-time. A study by Zurich found that job adverts which used gender neutral language, and openly mentioned flexibility, attracted 20% more women (as well as more men). If a role can be done part-time, say so, as explicitly as you can.

We’re facing a fantastic opportunity here to rework the way we recruit and employ people, for the better. But let’s make sure that this transformation is future-proof and inclusive, by putting part-time front and centre.

Published April 2021

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