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Part-time, flexible jobs are not necessarily 'bad'

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While rising unemployment has been an expected feature of the economic downturn, the biggest story has been around the shift to part-time working. Not real jobs, it is said, but part-time jobs that people have had to take as a last resort.

 

This is part of a more general move towards ‘flexible’ jobs becoming the norm in developed economies. This is not only because of market uncertainties and legislative changes but also reflects the tendency of organisations over time to shift away from the old-fashioned approach of offering a career for life. The assumption is that more of us will need to take ‘bad jobs’ – with their insecurity and lack of commitment from an employer – and join the ranks of the unfortunates who have to make do.

But is this true? How do people with flexible roles feel about their position? One problem is a tendency in the press and popular discussion to lump all flexible working contracts together, when in reality flexible roles cover a range of contract types with different kinds of features: workers may be paid more for lower job security or given additional benefits. Also, workers may trade off less job security for greater flexibility and higher overall wellbeing and happiness that better fit with their lives and the opportunity to take part in other activities or simply to enjoy leisure.

The fact is that flexible working contracts aren't necessarily a poor person's option. Using a large survey of workers' experiences and job satisfaction, it has been possible to look behind these assumptions and demonstrate that there is generally no negative impact on job satisfaction from flexible working, especially fixed-term contracts, one of the most common forms of flexible work. There is some evidence that male workers dislike temporary agency work and clearly flexible workers are less satisfied with their job security. People prefer to have the security, if possible – especially in times such as now of greater labour market turbulence and chance of contracts being ended – but overall, these kinds of roles cannot be considered to be ‘inferior’.

For organisations and HR professionals, public attitudes to flexible contracts could become a crucial issue. If flexible forms of work continue to be seen negatively, employees will resist any attempts to make them part of a more mobile workforce. The perception will always be one of organisational cost-cutting and a means for senior managers to shed labour when times are tough. The other side of the picture is that flexibility may be the key to long-term job satisfaction, particularly for the highly-educated section of the workforce, which can become disappointed by what the ‘knowledge economy’ has actually been able to offer. The sophisticated types of ‘portfolio’ working suggested over the past decades may well be out of reach for most people, but a level of variety, spells of less activity and the chance to take a more entrepreneurial approach to work, all have the chance to revitalise people’s personal and working lives.

A culture change is likely to happen incrementally, as flexible roles become more common. But HR professionals can help by doing all they can to ensure that staff on alternative contracts are treated as far as possible like permanent staffers, are not excluded from organisation-wide events and activities and there is a positive sense that flexible staff are a crucial part of operations and take on key roles.

Colin Green is lecturer in education economics at Lancaster University Management School