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Is time on your side?

An overview of flexible working time options (Part 2)



Reducing the hours


Part-time working is as old as the hills. Yet it is clustered with other new ways of working as a departure from the "industrial age" norm of an 8-hour (or more) day. Certainly it has been becoming more popular as a work option. Since 1971 the number of part-time workers has risen from 2.2 million to more than 7 million.

For employees there are often work-life balance attractions in working fewer hours per day or per week - such as caring responsibilities, civic responsibilities (e.g. being a magistrate, school governor, lifeboat volunteer, etc) or recreational interests. Surveys consistently show that the majority of people doing part-time work do so because they want to, not because they've been forced into it by lack of opportunity or by downsizing employers.

Part-time is a particular popular option for women returning from maternity leave. In fact, the majority of people working part-time are women - and much of the rise in part-time working can be put down to the rise in women's employment. There are people who see this as a problem, reflecting traditional stereotypical gender roles, and a problem in workplace equality as it consolidates an inferior position for women in terms of pay and career opportunities. It also leads to men opting out of parenting/caring in the domestic environment, as they enjoy the role of breadwinner while the woman juggles home and work responsibilities.

A different way of looking at it is that with women having a longer tradition of part-time and flexible working, they have been better able to adapt to life in the new economy, and the decline of manufacturing industries. In de-industrialised areas men who have worked in traditional industries like mining and engineering have often found it harder to find work than women, who have been more willing to accept work with fewer hours - and lower pay, no doubt.

The problems of lower conditions of service has been largely addressed by the Part-time Working Regulations (in the UK - similar legislation applies throughout the EU). These require that par-time workers should have the same rates of pay as full-time workers doing the same kind of job, and the same entitlement to holiday entitlement, training and benefits on a pro rata basis.

For employers, part-time work has many attractions, particularly in terms of retaining the skills and experience of (usually female) workers who want or need to reduce their working time. A perceived downside may be that it is a greater management task to supervise more people doing a full-time equivalent role. ON the other hand, 2 part-time workers are often more productive than one full-time one.


Jobshare is a particular structured form of part-time working, where a job is shared between 2 people. It could in principle be more than 2, but examples of this don't leap out at you, and one would expect the coherence of the job would begin to disintegrate with more than 2 people involved.

Models for this vary. A 50:50 split is common, but other variations are possible. Some employers find it best that both workers have at least one day in common, so that the baton can be passed on more effectively, with the jobsharers able to pass on necessary information and brief each other on current tasks and issues.

Some jobshares, however, may involve a more rigid distinction of skills, so the overlap in tasks may be less.

Formal jobshare arrangements are still comparatively rare, less than 1% of the workforce. But they are becoming more common, particularly in the public sector, or at least the principle of allowing it.

Term-time working

Have you noticed how much less congested roads are at rush hour during the school holidays? The common wisdom is that it's all these environmentally-unfriendly parents not driving their kids to school that makes the difference. But that doesn't explain why I can get a seat on the 7.45 train to Kings Cross during the holidays.

No, the fact is that far fewer people go to work altogether during the school holidays - and not just teachers. There are two reasons for this: many parents (either together or individually) time their holidays with the school holidays, or parts of them; and secondly, there are large numbers of people taking unpaid leave during the holidays.

A term-time working contract will specify the amount of holidays - around 9 or 10 weeks - and may stipulate that paid holiday leave should also be taken during the school holiday period. Together these should add up to at least the normal 13 weeks of school holiday.

There are clear advantages in terms  of ordering one's domestic life. But there may be problems of continuity and cover for the employer, balanced by the reduced costs of employment and the capacity to recruit and retain skilled staff who have caring responsibilities. For the individual, there is the risk of intrusion during the periods of unpaid leave, particularly if the role involves responsibility or specialist skills and knowledge.

Phased retirement

Phased or flexible retirement is discussed in more detail in another Flexibility article. There are no particular reason, other than habit and bureaucratic ease, why there should be a time in life where one day you're working flat out, and the next day you have no work at all.

For some people such a clear-cut end-point to working life may be highly desirable. For many it is not. Either side of this divide - which is both institutional and psychological, many people want to work, but work a reduced number of of hours. The format of the work schedule may vary: almost any of the flexible work options can be tailored to a reduced total amount of hours.

The two major reasons for currently low uptake are financial disincentives (both lower pay and tax issues), and a mindset that sees older people taking on menial tasks at the sunset of their careers - the "light duties" job opportunity that ends "would suit active pensioner".

Most older workers would probably continue to do the work they are good at - and it is in employers' interest to retain the skills and experience of their older workers, whether on a part-time or intermittent basis.



Revised July 2010


We continue our overview of working time options by looking at reduced hours and leave options.

Part 1 is here




Leave options

Parental Leave

Maternity leave has been around, perhaps, since the Garden of Eden - it could be considered nature's way of enforcing a career break. Over the past century legislation has increasingly strengthened the mothers' legal position with regard to pay, benefits and the right to return to work, and also her ability to choose when and how to resume work.

Enlightened employers see the positive advantages of setting up beneficial regimes around maternity leave, not only to comply with legislation but to protect their investment in the training and employment of valuable workers. Positive approaches can greatly increase the chances of a mother returning to the same employer after maternity leave, particularly if accompanied by options for reduced or flexible hours. In some cases reduced hours are agreed before maternity leave commences, allowing the employer to recruit not only for maternity cover, but also for (say) a 0.5 post or jobshare at the end of the leave period.

Not all employers take this view. I know a manager in the catering industry, where budgets are tight, margins small and staff turnover traditionally high, who sees all this as an excess of red tape and politically correct insanity. He avoids employing women of child-bearing age, because in his experience they leave faster and cost more. And are more likely to take him to court claiming discrimination! Paternity leave? Don't even think about it! All these benefits for parents discriminate against other workers - if people choose to have kids they should be prepared to take the consequences! (For similar reasons he also parks, on principle, in the reserved "mother and baby" parking spaces at supermarkets!)

The government has, however, done more than think about paternity leave, and is introducing a right to it from 2003, payable at £100 per week. It has to be taken immediately after the birth of a child.  This is additional to the 13 weeks unpaid parental leave which can be taken by each parent for each child under 5 (including adopted children). The regulations for Maternity and Paternity leave are enshrined in the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999. (See box on right for links).

Sabbaticals and career breaks

I know several people who have reached the top of a particular tree, harvested some savings, and then in various ways "downshifted" - to travel the world, become a hot air balloon pilot, do a PhD, resume a career as a budding rock star, etc. The urge for change or personal development is great in most of us, even before we reach those mid-life crises. But does it have to mean abandoning the career so far?

A break  to do something else is more common in countries such as Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, it has largely been confined to academia, where people may have a term or a year's sabbatical for further study, or write a book and so forth. But a career break might in principle be for any reason.

For both employer and employee this can be a valuable arrangement. the employer gets to keep a valuable employee, who hopefully returns at the end of the specified period (whether 3 months, a term, 6 months, a year, etc) with new knowledge skills and/or more content with a better balance in life or fulfilled ambitions. Such benefits can help to make an organisation an employer of choice for potential recruits.

There is no statutory right to such a break, but many employers have policies or collective agreements which outline eligibility and conditions. Usually this will mean that an employee must have worked a qualifying period - several years - and conditions may limit the reasons for the leave, e.g. it must be for further study.

Mixing the options

When approaching flexible work it is worth thinking of the range of suitable options - too many companies feel that, for example, implementing flexitime will satisfy all needs. But as well as a range of options, it is worth considering how a mixture of options might be the best solution for individuals or for businesses. For example, part-time work with flexible hours may be ideal for helping to cover peaks of demand.

And as well as mixing flexible time options, combining them with flexible place working may be the order of the day. Why do people need to come in for those core hours in a flexitime scheme? Could they be better off and work just as well if they worked at home for some of the time instead?

There are no set answers. But finding the best solutions that fit with personal circumstance, personal preferences and the business context is what flexible working is all about.



Further info on parental leave

Our article on Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave provides the view from the Department for Business and links to further information.



All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009