Britain, far more than any other country in the EU, has embraced part-time working. Companies have certainly found that it has given them the ability to respond quickly to fluctuating demand for their products or services. Part-time work, when wrapped up in the rhetoric of 'flexible' working arrangements, is undeniably appealing, but can it contain any hidden dangers?
A lack of continuity in customer service standards, especially in the service sector, is a common problem. You may have suffered the problem of trying to schedule a meeting with Tim, who's in Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Kim, who's in Tuesdays and Thursdays, and your client, who's in most days - and getting a little impatient. In these situations, says Philip Festa, director of Ascot-based customer service consultancy MSB, employers should judge the efficacy of flexible working on the quality of the product or service provided, rather than being too accommodating to the lifestyle pattern of each employee.
Even so, many potential problems are avoidable if handover procedures at the end of a shift are thorough. In one hotel chain, according to Festa, a regular customer paid a sizeable bill after running a two-day conference with 200 people - then returned to reception and asked to make a local call. The poorly informed part-timer on the desk tried to charge him 10p, explaining it was hotel policy. The customer went berserk. Overcoming problems like this requires a dedication to training in continuity issues.
'You wouldn't let someone drive a car without training,' says Festa. 'But you will let them talk to your customers. The person who has the first contact with your customer can make or break that relationship. Your business can walk right out of the door - or, worse, go to your competitor.'
The success of part-time working arrangements also depends on what is being implemented. One supermarket switched all its full-timers to part-time work to increase profitability. 'We said it was a self-defeating policy which would seriously damage the business,' said a TUC spokesman.
The TUC was right. Labour turnover rose from 20% to 33%, and absenteeism from 2% to 9%.
One thing that should also be considered before giving employees the part-time option is the nature of the company. For example, it is easier to introduce part-time working arrangements into a well-resourced, large organisation rather than a smaller company. Shaun Tyson, professor of human resources at Cranfield School of Management, says: 'Small and rapidly changing organisations find it difficult to work in this way. They always feel insecure about who is responsible for what.'.