Men and women seek part-time work for a variety of reasons, including everything from the need to help care for family members to a desire to reduce hours toward the end of one’s career.

Despite that demand for part-time options, many of these experienced and productive workers struggle to find positions that meet those needs. And according to a study on this issue, the problem could largely be one of design.

Australian researchers Natalie Smith and Paula McDonald are authors of the study, “Facilitating sustainable professional part-time work: A question of design?“, published in the Journal of Management & Organization.

For their study, Smith and McDonald interviewed 16 part-time workers (three men and 13 women), as well as eight supervisors, in four Australian cities during 2010. The part-time workers had a minimum of 12 years’ work experience and held relatively senior roles in a range of professional service firms (IT consulting, legal, and accounting).

Writing about the results online recently for The Conversation, Smith noted that the roles for nearly half of the workers included in the study did not change when they moved to part-time. While their pay decreased, “performance targets and workload remained the same.”

“The employees had reduced their hours by getting rid of non-urgent tasks such as networking and meetings, and delegating work to team members,” Smith wrote. “In one case, a female employee had been told by her employer that she wasn’t meeting the same high performance ratings she had in her full-time role, despite achieving the same performance targets for less pay.”

This “minimal redesign” of roles shows the arbitrary nature of part-time work, the study says, and it was the cause of “significant work intensification” for people who tried to maintain the same productivity levels they had while working full time.

“Overall, the findings suggest that the support offered by management, and their assumptions about part-time work per se, have a demonstrable impact on both the roles that were deemed possible to be performed on a part-time basis, as well as the work design process itself,” the study authors wrote. “In contrast, other contextual elements that were raised in interviews or through the sample, such as the gender of the individual, the type of professional service work, the type of client and the nature of the organization (e.g., local, multinational, national, privately owned) did not appear to make a material difference to the nature of the part-time role.”

The problem is that businesses don’t think part-time roles need to be redesigned in the first place, Smith wrote in her article. That causes problems “in managing employees’ workloads and interacting with other employees.”

For example, the study found that part-time workers struggled with handling “implicit work,” such as developing relationships, travel, training, internal meetings, and compliance activities. Many found they had to complete such tasks, which were not directly billable to a client, on their own time, meaning they didn’t really work only part-time hours.

In order to avoid falling into such a trap, part-time workers found they needed to be particularly assertive. “One female accountant explained that the need to ‘be a bit ballsy’ was important in any senior professional role, but was even more important in a part-time capacity, where it was important to be able to balance ‘saying no’ and ‘setting boundaries’ with being flexible,” the study said.

Despite the challenges of redesigning work for part-time employees, however, businesses could benefit from making the effort. According to the study, “the beneficial outcomes of allowing or supporting part-time work were the increased productivity and retention that resulted from approving requests for part-time work, and assisting managers to cater to peaks and troughs in demand. …

“Other benefits perceived and cited by managers included that part-time employees were fresher for work, had greater maturity, could read people better, and had excellent organization and time management skills that positively influenced colleagues.”

In her article, Smith wrote that businesses can start the redesign process by reducing the number of people with whom part-time workers must interact, including the number of clients they manage or the number of people who directly report to them.

Businesses can also assign work to teams rather than individuals, or pair senior employees with more junior workers. And they can provide systems to share knowledge instead of focusing on “one single point of expertise.”

Finally, companies can take steps to monitor and reduce the implicit workloads that force part-time workers to, in effect, work unpaid overtime.

“Having part-time roles available means more people can participate in the workforce,” Smith wrote. “Given the economic benefits of this, and the increasing demand from younger and older workers for these sorts of roles, organizations will be left behind if they don’t accommodate well-designed part-time arrangements.”

As with all flexible work options, when companies take the time to formulate a plan for part-time work, design those positions, and then implement everything fairly, the results can be beneficial for everyone involved.

Do you think more companies should offer part-time work options? What is the most important factor they should consider when doing so? What role do you expect part-time work to play in the workforce of the future? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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