Not slacking but frowningMaybe it’s a national tradition of a long hours culture, maybe it’s our seemingly ingrained dislike of ‘shirkers’, but ‘part-timers’ is one of the more damning verdicts I’ve heard casually passed in many of the organisations I’ve worked in. But will changes in our working culture make that far less of a put-down and much more a case of ‘Just saying …’? The Daily Telegraph, reporting on the latest ONS figures last week, revealed that the total number of us in part-time work increased by 26,000 to reach 7.96m – more than a quarter of the working population. And it is estimated that 1.16m of those are people actively seeking full-time work but ‘settling’ for something less (the highest figure for people in this category since records started in 1992). As Ian Brinley of The Work Foundation commented at the start of 2010:

The overall stability is deceptive in terms of the hours of work on offer. The number of people in full-time work is still going down, offset by more part-time jobs. The competition for such jobs is intense. There are now one million people working part-time who really want full-time work – up nearly 40 per cent compared with the same three months a year ago.”

These are striking figures that have been subjected to much commentary in terms of the economy and our national prospects. But apart from the financial impact – part-time workers naturally earn less, and are statistically also twice as likely to receive less than the minimum wage – there has been little commentary on other. more subtle impacts.

One is hidden in the statistics, as revealed in a CIPD Report released this August, Working Hours in the Recession:

The recession has resulted in both a fall in total employment (down by a net 580,000, 2%, in the two years to spring 2010) and a shift from full-time employment (which has fallen by 910,000, 4.1%) to part-time employment (which has increased by 330,000, 4.4%) – the shift to some extent due to many people working shorter hours to help their employers cut labour costs and thereby minimise redundancies. Some of the shift to part-time employment has thus been involuntary in the sense that a rising number and proportion of part-time workers are working part-time because they are unable to find a full-time job. The number of people in this latter situation increased by 400,000 to just over 1 million (14% of all those in part-time employment) between spring 2008 and spring 2010.

The combined impact of these changes is a net fall of 32.7 million (3.5%) in the number of hours worked each week in the UK (Table 1). Men account for well over four-fifths of the fall, mainly reflecting the relatively high concentration of men in full-time employment and their preponderance in those parts of the private sector, notably manufacturing, hardest hit by the recession.”

Another impact by the rise in part-time working was identified by economist Gavyn Davies, writing for the FT in August 2010 about ‘The (part time) German jobs miracle’:

In addition, and probably more importantly in the past two years, the Merkel government has worked hard to boost part time (or short time) work during the recession, through a programme of subsidies, exhortation to employers, influence on wage bargains, and other measures. As a result, Germany has become the world leader in part time employment, and in many industries, part timers now account for over a quarter of the total workforce.

This is a two-edged sword. It has certainly spread the cost of the recession much more widely across the population, rather than allowing it to be concentrated on the relatively few who become unemployed. This contrasts sharply with the US, where firms have been particularly eager to cut total jobs during this recession. But it has also greatly depressed the growth of labour productivity. In 2009 alone, GDP per employed person fell by a remarkable 4.9 per cent in Germany, while it rose by 1.8 per cent in the US. And it may have damaged the long term performance of the economy, by locking people into jobs which have become obsolete.”

The part-time working experience is different in many ways, some of which may help to explain the figures Gavyn Davies highlights. Full-time workers will be familiar with that ‘trying to catch up with everything that’s happening and make sense of it all’ feeling when they return from a break – even only a short one. But this is a sensation that many part-time workers experience every time they go to work. And with fewer total hours available to them to do it in, they have more catching up to do: the ‘overhead’ of time needed just to be ‘up to speed’ is higher – and in many organisations, that overhead falls very much on the part-timer. How many managers with part-timers among their workforce pause to think before an announcement or decision how they will communicate this to those who are not in the office that day?

How well do organisations manage the relationships that part-time staff have with clients or suppliers during the time they are not in the office? Are part-time staff allowed or encouraged to be honest about their part-time status with external contacts, so that expectations of response times can be managed more intelligently? Their incoming email will keep arriving 24 hours a day: when they are only working 24 hours a week, who manages that discrepancy – or even monitors its impact?

Of course, much depends on the nature of the work that is being done part-time. Where this is tightly focused (on a single task or a specific project), the impact may be less significant: the trend towards project-based working with relatively fluid team membership means many organisations are used to managing in this way. But in an organisation where interplay between staff is a significant element in achieving the task, part-time working can be problematic: do full-time staff accept a need to repeat themselves to ensure everyone is informed, or are part-timers left to cope with the discontinuity?

Employment regulations can also be a source of difficulty: part-time staff have lower eligibility for employment protection and many reward systems. There are implications for the level of support and development opportunities that they receive: I can’t readily find facts and figures, but I’d suspect that part-time staff are less likely to be considered for development activities. Particularly in an economy where costs are a major factor in increasing levels of part-time work, it’s counter-intuitive to believe that organisations will readily invest in developing those whose ‘cost’ they have actively downsized (or whose part-time role they are not considering expanding on financial grounds).

Nor is that the only issue that touches upon engagement: a part-time worker is quite literally less engaged than a full-time counterpart – no matter how worthy the reasons for doing so, the organisation is at one level explicitly choosing to be less committed to them. Part-time workers could be forgiven for feeling less engaged than they might if find themselves arriving at work to disentangle numerous email updates they must read and digest before they are ‘back up to speed’, needing to acquire new skills or knowledge within a smaller working window for doing so, or being overlooked in many more subtle ways during their working week.

Even work-life balance may not be as optimised as we might tend to think. Consider the following words from the website of Careers Wales on the disadvantages of part-time working:

Some part-timers find they are constantly under pressure – trying to do more work than the available time allows. This may be because managers overestimate how much can be done in the time available, or may be due to the employee’s personality – feeling the need to demonstrate that they are as committed as full-timers, or perhaps feeling guilty that they are not able to do as much as their full-time colleagues, and over-compensating by working much harder! Such problems are usually more associated with part-time working in more senior positions. “

Companies seeking to retain talents and capacity by reducing working hours may be acting for virtuous or laudable reasons, but the increase in part-time working does change organisational culture. But how far – and how effectively – does it change organisational practice to avoid disengagement and lower productivity? Some of us may not be working as many hours as we used to or might like to, but it’s in everyone’s interest that they are spent productively and positively.

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