· Comment

There will be no flexible working revolution without facing the hard questions on part-time work

Public attitudes towards part-time working are finally starting to change. More senior level part-time workers are getting visibility. So why aren’t things getting better for the UK’s 7.9 million part-time workers?

Seven years ago, the right to work part-time was extended to anyone, for any reason, ending the rule of ‘only for caring reasons’. Six years ago, the number of men working part-time surpassed the 2 million mark for the first time. Today, Timewise reveals the results of a poll finding that three in four members of the UK public believe people who work part-time should have equal opportunity to progress in their careers. 

So far, so good. However…


The part-time ‘hole’

For many years, we’ve known that there’s a part-time shaped hole in the UK jobs market, one that’s worsening inequalities for women, carers, the sick and the elderly. At the end of last year we at Timewise analysed more than six million UK job ads and found that, in spite of the pandemic changing the way that many people work, the way we recruit is still very much full-time. Just 22% of job ads mentioned any kind of flexible options. The volume that mention part-time options? Just 8%, accounting for one in every 12 jobs.

Given 7.9 million people in the UK work part-time – accounting for one in four – that’s quite the mismatch.

And here’s the rub. We know that when most people say they want a flexible job what they really want, is a part-time job. Whether to fit with having children, caring for elderly relatives, mental health reasons or hospital appointments.

Did you know that part-time is one of the most consistently used search terms when people search for jobs online? It’s the part of the flexible working spectrum that is often the most life enabling. We know that when employers do design jobs so that they can be worked less than five full days a week successfully, they reap dividends in terms of talent.

So why the problem?


Toxic terminology

Part-time still carries a stigma. Of being unambitious, on the very gendered ‘mummy track’, of taking your foot off the pedal. Part-time jobs are crowded by low-paid and low-skilled roles. There have been attempts to ‘fix the people’ who need part-time work. To fix the language. But really, we need to change the way in which jobs are designed and advertised.

One of the ways that we can do that, is by sharing stories of real everyday work to show what is possible when you hire or promote people who work part-time.

Our ninth annual Power List published today (25 March) features a GP who was made managing partner after becoming the first in her practice to work a three-day week. When she made her flex request, she made it en masse – asking for flex to become the expectation for everyone, not the exception. She led a digitalisation of her surgery, which serves 18,000 people in Newham, London, and has been praised by the prime minister for its pandemic response.

It also features Sara Tate, the CEO of media giant TBWA, who works four days per week in a full-on operational and client facing role. And Victoria Price, who joined EY aged 18 as a new mum who was also caring for her grandmother. Victoria has worked part-time her whole career. She now advises high net-worth individuals on tax and is a partner.

Part-time can mean ambitious. It can mean senior. It can even mean being the boss.


Recognise and help the ‘flex have-nots’

As well as tackling the level that part-time jobs can achieve, we need to challenge the idea, that flexible working is only for people in office jobs. The UK’s frontline workers – delivery drivers, teachers, construction workers – need flex too. If they can’t flex in terms of location, then we must explore other ways to give them a sense of control and predictability, when it comes to working pattern. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we cannot help.


So what next?

As emerging from lockdown gets closer, employers are planning how to build back. For many, this involves looking at hybrid working, often focusing on a desk plan first. True hybrid work is about so much more than an organisational chart. It’s about protecting the wellbeing of your people and unlocking what kind of working pattern brings out their best. It’s about rolling this out fairly. Getting this right, involves asking the tough questions. The ‘how much do you want to work’ question, is just as important as the ‘when’ and ‘where’.


Karen Mattison, MBE, co-founder of Timewise