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Flexible Work Isn’t Really That Flexible

HR Daily, August 24, 2021

Since the first wave of COVID in 2020, ways of working have rapidly evolved. We seem to have finally arrived at an equilibrium of flexible working, where employees are offered more freedom and choice than ever before, but is that really the case? Is there really even such a thing as a true part-time role anymore? 

Part-time workers were hit first and hardest when the pandemic started. The BBC shared a study commissioned by Timewise, that found half of all part-time workers had been furloughed at one point during the pandemic, compared to only a third of full-time employees. This study also found that part-time employment has fallen at its fastest rate in at least 30 years during the crisis. 

Unfortunately, we know this first wave of job loss has disproportionately impacted women and carers, and for some the impacts are still unfolding today. WGEA’s 2020 statistics showed women hold 67.2% of all part-time roles and only 37.9% of all full-time roles. With the vast majority of part-time roles filled by women, often due to them still bearing the brunt of caring responsibilities, COVID layoffs broke down the economic and financial gender equality gains Australia had been working towards, leaving many women out of work and out of pocket. 

Why is part-time still scarce?

This first wave of job loss also exposed how businesses value part-time workers less than full-time workers. Due to the distribution of men and women across part-time and full-time employment, this value benefits men, who hold the majority of traditional full-time roles. 

With budgets tightening as COVID outstays its welcome, economic instability has impacted part-time recruitment.. Employers still aren’t reinstating these part-time roles, instead, handing off the extra work to their existing full-time employees, meaning those that still have their jobs, bear the brunt of an added workload. 

In a time when survival was the priority, many were too afraid to say no to the work they were offered, scared they too would lose their income. This is particularly prominent in casual roles where next week’s work is never promised. Overworking and unstable markets has caused excessive job stress and unmanageable workloads, with no end or relief in sight. What seems like a productivity spike to employers, is really a mental health low to overworked employees. 

So why aren’t employers reinstating part-time roles?

Traditional work-life boundaries were also broken down and with most employees working from home, expectations to work wherever and whenever rose. This context has artificially inflated productivity. With this increase in productivity, employers began to see full-time with work-from-home (WFH) options as the ideal flexible offering, for them and for their employees. This has left businesses ignoring the need to offer other flexible work options that each serve their own purposes, such as part-time, flexi-time, or condensed work weeks. COVID has created perceptions of WFH being the only form of flexible working, but choosing where you work, is not the same as being able to choose how much you work. 

Now with the rising shift towards flexible work, companies are leveraging this as a seemingly more desirable option. Instead of continuing their part-time role openings, they’re replacing them with flexible work offerings – marketing full-time roles with WFH flexibility. However, in so many cases, what is marketed as flexibility, or a reduced work week, often results in squeezing a full-time workload into an unmanageable time frame. So is ‘flexible work’ really working for the people that need it most? There is a large demographic of people that simply cannot commit to a full-time workload, or a deceivingly ‘flexible’ job. 

Why are part-time roles important? 

Whether you’re a student finishing off a degree, a parent, a disability or family carer, someone looking to move towards retirement, or simply someone who doesn’t want to work full-time, a part-time work week is a necessity. Employers should account for the time these individuals need to carry out other tasks, roles or responsibilities. If true part-time opportunities are no longer available, employers face the prospect of not being able to attract the best talent for their business and the serious possibility of overloading their full-time employees with multiple roles and tasks. 

At the end of the day, if the workload doesn’t accurately reflect the time allocated to the role, then you need to rethink how you’re designing for part-time, and for other flex roles. 

Katriina Tahka, CEO of A Human Agency

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