In just a few weeks the coronavirus pandemic turned the working world on its head. All but essential workers were effectively forced to work from home as businesses pivoted to remote working.
And, with restrictions and falling consumer confidence knocking demand, certain sectors have been operating at reduced capacity, leading to a rise in part-time working as well.
In July, the government responded by extending its Job Retention Scheme to allow businesses to bring furloughed employees back to work on a part-time basis. The scheme was a success, giving workers and employers the flexibility they needed at the time, and supported over nine million jobs in total. More recently, the Chancellor announced a new Jobs Support Scheme, which will see the government support the wages of people working part-time from November.
These measures have proved popular so far and are likely to see significant uptake again when the latest iteration is rolled out next month. Promisingly, this suggests a growing acceptance of a new way of working, with part-time and flexible working becoming more in-demand and more common. Despite the negative consequences of the pandemic, some positive changes to the way we work have materialised and will hopefully last into the future.
The benefits of part-time working
The traditional Monday-to-Friday 9-to-5 job has long been considered a ‘normal’ full-time role, but slowly and steadily we have seen a shift in this approach to working.
In 2002, the government introduced the right to request reduced hours to help parents juggle family and work commitments, and in 2014 it was opened up to any employee who has been with the same company for six months or more – parent or not.
Now, part-time working is even more widely accepted, aided by the effect of the pandemic. This is down to the huge benefits it brings for both employer and employee.
For employees, it gives them the opportunity to fit work around their personal commitments, whether that be raising children, caring for a family member, practising a hobby, working an additional job or studying. Part-time work allows greater flexibility which can benefit both the mental and physical health of employees including helping to alleviate stress, reducing the possibility of office burnout and improving happiness.
But the benefits aren’t just limited to employees. Healthier and happier staff can lead to a more productive and loyal workforce and a better workplace environment, potentially saving on recruiting and training new staff while also generating additional revenue. Whereas the traditional 9-5 role can actually stifle creativity, workflow and ambition and instead create a stagnant culture of the mundane, Groundhog-day type working environment where productivity can suffer.
Adapting to part-time working
While on the surface moving to part-time working might make a lot of sense for some and may appear straightforward, there are some potential hurdles to overcome.
Firstly, requesting part-time work may be a difficult conversation for some employees. They may be working under expectations to fulfil a full-time role, especially in certain sectors or at certain businesses where there is little precedent for part-time working and rigid working schedules are implemented. Approaching an employer in this context may be an intimidating prospect, but it’s important that employees feel empowered and confident particularly if it substantially benefits their life and work. HR departments can offer a more welcoming environment and should be considered for advice, and employees should also prepare alternative suggestions should their initial request be rejected. For example, ‘flexitime’ is another common form of flexible working that allows employees to vary their start and finish times, or ‘compressed hours’ whereby the week’s work is fit into a shorter time span.
Wherever possible any new working pattern should be mutually agreed. This will involve communication by both parties to calculate the number of days or hours a week the employee needs and whether the employee works a reduced number of days or a reduced number of hours. For this, the employee will need to clarify their commitments or personal circumstances – for example, do they have childcare needs or are they providing care for a vulnerable family member.
Once established, a careful adaptation period will be necessary for both employer and employee, and effective communication will be essential. Whatever hours they are working, employees will need relevant and timely information and the opportunity to be involved with team discussions to ensure they feel part of a team, feel motivated and feel are well equipped to do their jobs to the best possible standard.
With this new relationship in place, employers and employees should be in a strong position to make the most of part-time working with its many benefits.
Prior to the pandemic, there was already growing momentum for increased workplace flexibility, For example, a company in New Zealand recently trialled a four day week (with employees getting paid for five) which saw a substantially increased level of productivity and staff happiness, and has now been implemented permanently. The news was widely praised in the UK press.
The current crisis has further brought the need for new working arrangements in the UK into focus. Research has even shown how it could create 500,000 jobs in the UK at a time when we desperately need them. As more employers make use of the part-time working options supported by the government, we will hopefully see more and more roles in the near and long-term future with greater flexibility.