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Power to the part-time workers

Georgina Fuller

Although often overlooked in teams, Georgina Fuller looks at the important contribution part-time workers make to the workforce

The term ‘part-time’ is often seen as a euphemism for ‘slacking off’, synonymous with a lack of ambition, responsibility or credibility in the workplace. Yet this is often very far from the case as part-timers try and fit full time jobs into just three or four days a week. At least, that was the argument that shadow childcare minister Lucy Powell put forward last month (March). Powell called for a change in office culture and implored employers to debunk the myth that working mothers are less productive than their full-time colleagues. “We are not sitting on Facebook or coming in with a hangover. When we are working we are on it – and making the most of every minute of every day because when you are at home with family you have got to be on it every minute as well,” Powell said.

Karen Mattison MBE, the co-founder of Timewise, says there is still a stigma around part-timers because they are so often associated with taking the so-called ‘mummy track.’ “People assume you are choosing to trade in your career and prospects for family. And yet in reality, so few people want to have to make a stark choice between one and the other,” she comments. 

Emma Bartlett, partner at Speechly Bircham City law firm, argues that part-time workers are, in fact, more ambitious than their full-time colleagues. “If you return to a profession on a part-time basis, generally speaking, it is because you are ambitious. Professionals cannot afford to let their performance slack off, because of the detrimental impact it could have on their career,” she notes.

John Spencer, UK CEO of office consultancy Regus, says that many firms still adhere to 20th century workplace practices that encourage presenteeism – a major barrier for part-time workers. "It’s vital that UK managers move away from the notion that staff need to be physically in front of them," he says. "Outdated office culture including mistrust of remote working must be addressed if companies are to tap into the talent offered by part-time workers. We aren't just talking about hiring women with children, but everyone who either needs or has chosen flexibility in their working life." 

In reality, around eight million people, almost one in four UK workers, now work part-time. What has traditionally been seen as the realm of working mothers is now branching out to encompass other workforce groups, including fathers and older workers thanks to a raft of recent legislation (such as Shared Paternity Leave and Age Discrimination). The long-awaited Children and Families Bill has also just received royal assent, which means that from 30 June this year, the right to request flexible hours will be extended to all employees – whether they are a parent or not.

It seems younger workers are also keen to get in on the action. A recent report by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (see: PwC Next Gen: A Global Generational Study) indicated that two in three millenials (people in their 20s and early 30s) expect to be able to work flexible hours. “Working mothers aren’t the only people searching for work with balance,” says Higginson. “Like better pay, flexibility is an attraction tool that works for everybody. It’s becoming a marker of a future-forward workplace. Somewhere everyone wants to work.”

But recruiters and HR have got to totally reassess their recruitment practices if progress is to be made, says Alex Moyle, director of Selzig Consulting, “The key problem is that most of the part-time talent never gets in front of line managers as it’s filtered out by agencies, Applicant Tracking Systems or internal recruitment teams before shortlisting,” he comments. “Agencies should consider part timers in their selection process. This would at least give visibility to line managers of talent available.”  

Mattison says too many people find themselves falling into the ‘flexibility trap.’ “For the most part, individuals find flexible roles by negotiating terms after lengthy service with existing employers. This is great, if you can to stay with one employer for life,” she notes. “But the real gamechanger for talent, lies in building a vibrant, open market for jobs that are opening to flexibility. This is something that’s as critical for the business as it is for the individual – because the pool of people who need such jobs is made up of professionals with core skills and experience. As simple an act as adding the words ‘open to flexible working for the right candidate’ into job ads, will have real practical impact on the ground.”

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