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Professionals who want to work part-time have to do more than renegotiate their working hours. They also have to redesign their jobs to reduce workload.
Research published in the journal Human Relations, by Dr Charlotte Gascoigne from the Timewise Foundation and Professor Clare Kelliher from the Cranfield School of Management, shows that employers often do not reduce workload when professionals transition to part-time.
So part-time professionals end up delivering full-time outputs in part-time hours – and for a part-time salary.
What’s the impact of failure to reduce the workload?
We conducted in-depth interviews with 39 part-time professionals and managers in the UK and the Netherlands. Only a minority achieved a reduction in workload at the point of transition to part-time – and among those who did, it was usually by downgrading to a less demanding, non-managerial or non-client-facing role.
For the majority, workload was not renegotiated, so there remained a job design challenge, which might be overcome through adapting or ‘crafting’ their job. Those part-timers who tried to do this alone had only two options, both of which had major disadvantages.
The first was to reduce workload by cutting out networking and development activities – with obvious negative effects on career building. The second was to reduce working time while retaining the same outputs, which led to work intensification – working faster and harder, and with fewer breaks, in the time available.
The failure to address workload on transition to part-time hours not only means reduced career progression for part-timers, but discourages other employees from considering part-time working. They see the unfairness of part-timers having to deliver disproportionately heavy workloads, as well as the negative impacts on their career.
As a result many have concluded that part-time is unsustainable for some types of work.
Is there an alternative?
Our research shows that collaborative job design is the answer. Part-time professionals needed to renegotiate two dimensions of their job: workload (outputs) and availability schedule (time). First, reduction in workload was achieved by distributing workload more fairly across the team, delegating or swapping tasks with ‘substitutable’ colleagues.
Part-time team managers were in the best position to do this, since they could redistribute small amounts of appropriate work (by agreement) to their subordinates – but part-time non-managers could also swap and share tasks with peers. Often it took 6-12 months to reduce workload appropriately.
And synchronising the workload reduction with the organisational budget round was a good way of ensuring this happened fairly and collaboratively. Secondly, enlisting others in better project management, to maximise the predictability of the work, and arranging cover (again, with suitably ‘substitutable’ colleagues) could achieve predictable time off for the part-timer.
This collaborative ‘crafting’ of their job avoided the work intensification suffered by part-timers who tried to craft their jobs individually – but most part-timers lacked the negotiating power to redesign team working practices at the point of transition to part-time, or the point of hire.
How can employers facilitate part-time work for professionals?
It is critical for employers to recognise that part-time job design often cannot be done by the individual alone. This is because organisational working practices – which are assumed to be impartial – are in fact normally designed for full-timers rather than part-timers. It’s only by tackling these working practices – and changing them for everyone – that employers can create a level playing field for part-timers and full-timers.
We found two working practices which can systematically disadvantage the part-timer. The first is the expectation that the individual, as opposed to the team, will be constantly available to deal with unpredictable client demands. The second is the failure to plan and share the team’s workload collaboratively, so that work is shared fairly across the team.
It is these working practices that render professionals working part-time unable to fulfil obligations to clients, or meet quality standards. Yet they remain common across many professions, even when organisation policy, and the national legislative framework, ostensibly support part-time work.
We found these working practices even in the Netherlands, whose legislative framework is extremely supportive of part-time work, and in organisations which nominally have cutting-edge policies and practices. It seems that organisational working practices can override the best intentions of legislation and organisational policy, making it difficult for part-timers to avoid work intensification in some types of jobs.
Where these practices pertain across an occupation, professionals wanting to work part-time have limited choices. Tackling them is the way forward for employers who want to create sustainable part-time jobs for their professional workforce.
Why should employers care?
If this redesign of working practices sounds like a major undertaking, it’s worth considering the impact of doing nothing on organisational talent acquisition and retention.
Almost one in five professionals and managers in the UK works part-time already, with more than two in five working part-time in the Netherlands – not just parents and carers, but also older workers, millennials and those with health issues.
There is also a ‘silent cohort’ of full-timers who would actually prefer to work part-time, but don’t believe it’s possible: according to previous studies, a quarter of full-timers in the UK would prefer to work part-time, and are prepared to earn less.
If their workload is not reduced, that’s potentially a lot of dissatisfied and disengaged employees on the road to burnout and departure from the workforce – and an expensive waste of talent for employers. Creating feasible part-time jobs could also attract economically inactive people into the workforce.
And of course, preventing the downgrading of many women who need part-time work is a key means of tackling the Gender Pay Gap.
What can HR professionals do to support part-time professionals?
It’s time for HR to shift their thinking on part-time work for professionals: it’s no longer just a gender or diversity issue, but part of mainstream working practices; and you can’t attract and retain part-time professionals by writing a policy and then sitting back and waiting for requests.
It needs a proactive approach to redesigning professional and managerial work – and part-time job design training needs to become a regular part of management development programmes.