Flexible furlough – the biggest experiment in part-time working?

The lessons employers took from the coronavirus job retention scheme could improve working conditions for years to come, says Clare Kelliher

Flexible furlough – the biggest experiment in part-time working?

We have just come to the end of a national experiment in part-time working. An enforced experiment, but still one that could provide enough evidence and reassurance to bring about a fundamental change in attitudes towards flexible working and the working week.  

More flexibility might well turn out to be critical for organisations now seeing the return of staff from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Over an 18-month period, what was intended as a short-term emergency measure, furloughing staff on both a full- and part-time basis, became more like a way of life for employers. 

In many ways the entire world of work has changed over this time – as have some employees’ lives and their ways of thinking about work. So staff coming back may feel like strangers. Not only because they haven’t been around for some time, but also because what they are looking for from their job may have shifted. 

As a result, the end of the furlough scheme doesn’t only represent a threat to employees from potential redundancies. Managers may also be faced with a population of people who have been disconnected from the workplace: a shake-up for the standard employer-employee relationship which will be played out in the months to come. 

For employers, the greatest risk may lie with those who have been on full-time furlough.  Employees who have been on furlough (like some of those who have had long periods working from home), may feel quite divorced from their organisations: be anxious about returning to work or the commute. There may be practical changes in the workplace and to how their work is performed which will need to be learned. Without a doubt, there will be instances where it has delayed a redundancy process, but also being on furlough may have given employees the time, space and relative financial security to think about their priorities in life and whether they want to continue working for their employer, or at least working in the way that they did pre-pandemic.

For example, some may want to change their hours or work more from home. Others might have started doing self-employed work, even started their own business, and now have plans to see how they get on doing that – alongside their employment – before deciding whether to pursue it full time. It may take some time before HR begins to see how employee plans and motivations have changed and what that means for the business.

For HR leaders, this period of re-assessment is also a great opportunity to look at alternative working models, and the different ways in which they might get the best from their people, and open up to new pools of talent. Of course, how this needs to be tackled will depend a great deal on the organisation’s performance through the coming months of uncertainty, so what surveys about the intended actions around recruitment and retention tell us today may not represent a true picture of the situation once both sides have evaluated their post-furlough experiences.

In particular, HR teams might think about the scope for offering greater opportunities for part-time working. Part-time working has often been seen to be inconvenient for managers and co-workers; however we know that more people want to work part-time than are able to access it, and there is strong research evidence to show that where employees have some choice over their working arrangements it can increase levels of commitment and engagement, and also contribute to better employee wellbeing and work-life balance. Organisations who used the flexible (part-time) furlough scheme will now have more experience of part-time working, sometimes in roles where it had not been used previously, and will have seen how it has worked in practice. 

At Cranfield we have set up a research project – with input from the CIPD, the CBI and TUC – examining employers’ experiences of using the flexible element of the furlough scheme (what they have learned and whether this has changed attitudes to their future part-time working offer). The initial evidence suggests many employers have drawn positives from the experience. Now it’s a matter of finding ways to develop a platform for longer-term change.

What’s clear is that the coming months aren’t the time to assume there will be – or should be – business as usual. It would be a mistake for HR to push for staff to slot straight back into old routines and expect the same levels of engagement. In this time of readjustment and reorientation, when the furlough ‘strangers’ are coming back on board, it will be more important than ever that the lines of communication remain open. Now’s the time for the employer-employee relationship links to be re-assessed, for different options to be openly explored, and for the benefits of this to be shared.

Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management