As more skilled workers choose to go part-time, employers need to adapt.
Part-time workers now account for about 30 per cent of the workforce and their numbers are growing, according to the latest Labour Force Survey into employment trends. Though the trend is usually associated with low- paid employees being forced into such positions because of the absence of full-time alternatives, it is becoming increasingly common for more skilled staff to opt for this method of working.

Christina Evans, a researcher at Roffey Park Management Institute in West Sussex, says that such people are being prompted to make what she terms positive moves because they want to "put some balance into their lives" - so that they can, for example, spend more time with their children or on further education courses that will help them to develop their careers. "They are not all women," she stresses. "As the workplace becomes more stressful, it becomes an increasing career choice."

The expansion of the numbers makes those working part-time feel less unusual and less isolated, but it poses challenges for managers. And it appears that not all organisations are rising to them. Ms Evans found in her study of line managers, human resources specialists and general staff from organisations in the retail, leisure services and healthcare sectors that while companies demand 100 per cent from their part-timers, many do not provide the management support or training that such workers need. Managers need to improve their understanding of part-timers' needs regarding work patterns and motivational factors if they are to retain such staff and increase their commitment, she concludes. With increasing numbers of businesses realising that many people opting to work part-time hold valuable specialist skills, these issues are going to become increasingly important.

According to her report, The Challenge of Managing the Part-time Workforce, the most important factor in part-timers' work is a need to feel challenges. She also found that the most effective way of making them feel fully integrated as part of project teams is to give them clear areas of responsibility and trust them to complete tasks within allotted timescales.

"The most effective managers understand that the needs of part-timers are pretty much identical to those of full-time workers. Yet the personnel, human resource and training infrastructure for part-timers is quite different to that of full-timers in many organisations - a distinction which can lead to part-timers feeling like second-class citizens," Ms Evans says.

"In many cases, for example, full-time staff have easier access to information. However, managers who take the time and trouble to keep their part-time people up-to-date on events help to generate a much greater sense of involvement."

So much for improving the lot of those who are already working part-time. But how do those who have - in her words - rethought what they want out of life and climbed on board the bandwagon?

"Organisations that need flexibility will be prepared to consider it," says Ms Evans. "It's a question of people pointing out the benefits and individuals asking." Even if a company does not have a set policy encouraging part-time working, there is often room for mutual agreement, she adds.

While there is much talk in the report of part-timers lacking the emotional and practical support of managers, the survey also found "some good practices". Ms Evans now wants to find out how widespread they are. The message for organisations is that part-time working is going to increase; and that those that want to compete for qualified staff need to start providing them with support.