Cranfield School of Management has conducted new research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), looking at the future of part-time working and the impact of flexible furlough. The CIPD was invited to be a member of the Steering Group, chaired by Jo Swinson, feeding in on policy recommendations. The research and practical recommendations are very timely given the current challenges the UK is facing with skills shortages and attempts to boost labour market participation. 

Why is part-time working important? 

While the new frontiers of hybrid working have dominated the headlines, we contend that HR managers need to be paying more attention to part-time working. 

Providing more and better opportunities for high-quality part-time working to a wider range of employees is at the heart of solutions to many of HR’s most pressing issues, including: 

  • recruitment and retention 

  • equality, diversity and inclusion 

  • employee wellbeing; and 

  • helping people deal with the current cost-of-living crisis.  

Around one-quarter of the UK’s workforce works part-time. But this is mostly women, in what are often seen as lower-skilled roles, concentrated in particular sectors such as hospitality and retail. However, many others who would like to work part-time don’t have the option, unless they are prepared to take a backwards step in terms of their career. This is often due to a general perception among organisations and line managers that part-time working doesn’t work for some types of jobs. Managers worry about extra costs (more staff means more HR, day-to-day managing and training time), and the practicalities of organising work schedules and dealing with gaps in availability.  

Instead, part-time working should be seen as an essential part of an employer’s offering and branding. First, it’s an obvious way of dealing with current labour shortages. ONS figures show that there are currently fewer people in the UK workforce than at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020; and one in five people aged between 18 and 64 are economically inactive (with a much higher figure among the over-50s, where there are more people choosing not to work, taking on caring responsibilities or dealing with ill-health, etc).   

Offering part-time working is an important pillar of any EDI proposition, allowing those for whom full-time working is impractical to find a way back into employment. Also, with the cost-of-living pressures from high inflation, more people are wanting to take on part-time roles in addition to their current jobs to earn extra money. Finally, reduced hours can be a means of protecting employee wellbeing in the longer-term, by reducing levels of stress and consequently employee absence and associated costs.  

What does the research show about part-time working? 

The ESRC-funded research at Cranfield School of Management has shown that experiences during the pandemic and the enforced disruption of working practices have changed managers perceptions: there is now more willingness to consider part-time working, and greater capability in terms of managing part-time workers more effectively.   

The research focused on employers who had used the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), and specifically the flexible furlough’ part of the scheme, where staff could be deployed on a part-time basis and furloughed for the remaining time. We found positive, unintended consequences from using the flexible furlough scheme. Almost 40% of employers of survey respondents said using the scheme had helped line managers to design and manage part-time working more effectively, through more effective matching of workload to hours worked and managing gaps in staff availability. In addition, 42% said the experience had made line managers more open to part-time working for the future.  

What should HR do to support? 

So what should HR be doing? Fundamentally, part-time working needs to be recast from being considered a short-term cost to the business, to being seen as an organisational investment in future talent. Offering an alternative to full-time only working can be used as a key tool to address a number of current HR challenges, including, for example, as part of the solution to recruitment and retention of the future workforce, by attracting a new source of talent, increasing workforce diversity and improving organisational wellbeing.   

HR needs to take responsibility for driving the creation of better-quality part-time jobs and making them more available to middle and senior ranking employees. For effective implementation, there is also a need to develop capability among managers in calibrating workloads, organising the right mix of skills and staff cover; and setting appropriate expectations in terms of outputs and performance, pay and rewards.  

Practical support can be provided for line managers through case studies and examples of good practice of designing work for part-time working, which are focused on specific types of work and workplaces to reflect relevant context. Pilot schemes are a great way of encouraging experimentation and allowing managers to assess what is possible and learn about the costs and benefits involved.  

Organisations should also strive to create a culture that encourages open dialogue about preferred working hours, rather than assuming that a lack of requests for working fewer hours signals a lack of demand. Confidential conversations about the working hours preferences for both existing staff and potential new hires may reveal unexpected results, especially where it is made clear that a preference for working part time will not result in career penalties. Alongside this, HR should identify and encourage internal champions among senior management who can demonstrate their support for part-time working and its benefits for the organisation  

Our research showed that the enforced experiment in using part-time working to access flexible furlough challenged many managers perceptions and demonstrated to them that part-time working is a feasible option for many more roles than had previously been imagined. What’s needed now is the toolkit of skills among managers to deliver the opportunities and in doing so, unlock the full range of benefits that true working hours flexibility will bring to employees, employers and the UK labour market overall.  


About the authors

Clare Kelliher 

Clare Kelliher FAcSS, FHEA ,FRSA, Academic FCIPD is Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University, UK.  

Dr Charlotte Gascoigne

Dr Charlotte Gascoigne BA, MBA, PhD is an organisational consultant and researcher who helps employers to attract and retain employees by deploying the learning from the best academic research on flexible and part-time working.  

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion, CIPD

Claire specialises in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, resourcing and talent management. She has also conducted research into meaning and trust at work, age diversity, workplace carers and enterprise and has worked on a number of international projects. She is the author of several reports and articles and regularly presents at seminars and conferences.

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