Why we need to rethink part-time work

Organisations need to create more part-time roles and, importantly, set them up for success. This will require changing our assumptions about part-time work and those who want, or need, to take it up. By Belinda Morgan.

If I ask you to think of a typical part-time worker, who pops into your mind? Is it an ambitious manager looking to move into an executive role? Or is it perhaps a mother of young children, working part-time so she can balance family and paid work?

If it’s the latter, did you stop to consider that these two descriptions might in fact belong to the same person? There are many career-driven people in the workforce who prefer, or need, to work part-time, and who are looking to continue to grow exciting and challenging careers while doing so. And the unfortunate reality is that this is an extremely challenging thing to achieve in today’s workplaces. 

The problem with part-time work

Part-time work has the potential to change lives. Done well, it can drive hugely positive outcomes for individuals, families, workplaces and society. Yet most people and organisations don’t yet realise its power. They still think of it as an inconvenient, but obligatory, perk they can offer certain people in certain circumstances. And what’s worse, they often view those who want to work part-time as less committed than their peers. Or even less capable.

Because of these misconceptions about the structure and the people who prefer to work part-time, workplaces rarely put any resources into setting part-time work up for success. And when it then doesn’t succeed, the biases are reinforced. It’s a vicious cycle where no one wins.

The result is that there are not enough part-time roles out there, and that employees who do manage to access them tend to experience part-time work as a temporary holding pattern. Their arrangement is ‘tolerated’ by their employers until the time comes when they are ready to step back into full-time work. Part-time work effectively becomes a career handbrake, and something that can’t be sustained over the long term.

Why should anyone care?

At this point you might be wondering why this matters. Surely it’s a bit of a niche issue? And if parents choose to work part-time, and are in a privileged enough position to be able to do so, then maybe they should be prepared to deal with the consequences?! The first reason we should care is a purely economic one. 

Data released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in June this year shows that at every age, less than 50% of women in the Australian workforce work full-time. It’s not just working mothers who need part-time roles either. Being a mother is, of course, a compelling reason to seek part-time work, but there are many other equally valid reasons. Such as being a father. Research shows that a third of young fathers in the UK say they would take a pay cut to work less and spend more time with their families.

There are also many other talented and experienced people in the workforce who can’t, or prefer not to, work full-time for other reasons. Such as:

  • People with disabilities that preclude them from working full-time.
  • People running small businesses alongside their day jobs. 
  • People wanting to take a phased transition to retirement.
  • People on visas limiting their working hours.

This is by no means a niche issue. And if so, many people are at risk of not being able to achieve their full potential in the workplace. Think about what this means in terms of wasted talent and the impact on a nation’s productivity.

The second reason we should care is workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The consulting firm Timewise warns that if a company’s DEI programmes 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’.

And the final reason we should care is talent attraction. Given the talent shortages that organisations everywhere are currently grappling with, it seems like madness not to create job structures that allow employers to access the full spectrum of talent within the workforce.

The message couldn’t be clearer. We need to create more part-time roles and, importantly, set them up for success. This will require all of us to change our assumptions about part-time work and those who want, or need, to take it up. And it will require more organisations to step up to the plate and take this important form of workplace flexibility as seriously as they are now taking remote working.

Belinda Morgan is the author of the newly released Solving The Part-Time Puzzle: How to decrease your hours, increase your impact, and thrive in your part-time role. She is a sought-after trainer, coach and speaker who helps people and organisations realise the many benefits of becoming truly flexible.

 

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