Unleashing the part-time platoon to fight for your social business survival

Hiring flexible workers could boost your social business and help you hire responsibly, but how do you make sure you get it right?

In a world of portfolio careers, Skype conference calls and 24-hour communications, flexible working is becoming increasingly desired by employees and necessary for businesses.
And the most recent Power Part Time List, in which fifty role models who work less than full time were named by the social enterprise recruitment company Timewise Foundation, showed that this is true of every sector, including the social sector. 
Among the names on the 2013 list, published in December, were Celia Richardson, director of external affairs at Social Enterprise UK, and Lily Lapenna, founder and chief executive of MyBnk, a charity that delivers financial and enterprise education programmes to 11-25 year olds. 
Both have found great success in working flexible hours in order to achieve the happiest balance possible in both their working and personal lives, and great results for the businesses they work in. 
But is flexible working suitable for every business? And, given the opportunities that part-time work can provide to people in the labour market who are unable to work full time, should social sector organisations feel a sense of obligation to offer flexible working?
Get it right 
Jan Golding, chief executive of Roots Human Resources, an HR consultancy for charities, social enterprises and civil society organisations, says that no business should offer flexible working purely because it feels it is the right thing to do.  She says they should only ever do it for business reasons – such as attracting and retaining the people they need, or meeting the work that needs to be done. “If you do it only because it is well regarded it can become an expensive luxury and a noose around you neck,” she says. 
Golding says businesses should think very carefully before hiring more people than they necessary. “From a cynical angle, the more people you have, the more potential there is for something to go wrong and for absenteeism and things like grievances and injuries to arise,” she says. “And the more heads you have, the more time is spent on management.”
However, she says that the increased flexibility that can come from having part-time employees can help offset any increased per capita costs, such as extra uniforms. And she says that evidence has repeatedly shown that people who request flexible work generally go out of their way to make it a success if their employer says yes. 
Lapenna says she has found that since going part-time her way of working has improved. She started working part-time shortly after completing a short maternity leave, so that she could spend more time with her daughter and concentrate on other interests. To enable this she promoted one of her colleagues to co-CEO, who also works part-time. 
“In the past I didn’t think it would be possible to achieve the same kind of impact and growth we had always been aiming for if I worked part-time,” she says. “But I’ve become a lot better at working. I’m very rigorous about what I will and won’t do. It’s about prioritisation and delegation – part of it is about letting go of control.”
Lapenna says she has a number of colleagues who are also part-time and an important part of making this work is organising team-building days so that people who are not working at the organisation full-time still get a sense of its culture. 
“It’s also important for the working environment to be task-orientated, not time-orientated, so that people have objectives that they need to meet, rather than being only focused on what time they are arriving for or leaving work,” she says. 
Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise Foundation, says another benefit of taking on part-time employees is that you can afford a more highly qualified or experienced person. “You can get a £60,000 person for £40,000 by having them for fewer hours,” she says. 
She adds that offering this flexibility can also help businesses retain people who might leave otherwise, pointing out that Celia Richardson is a good example of this (see below). “It’s a way of not having an exodus of women at middle management level, so there is more diversity of talent,” she says. 
Lapenna adds that offering flexible working could be particularly important to the social sector in attracting the best talent. “It’s very important in our sector because we’re often not able to offer the best salary,” she says. “And there are people who have a huge amount of experience who are struggling find suitable work. But, when they do, they give it everything they have. And a happy, satisfied workforce increases productivity.”
Celia Richardson: part-time survival
Celia Richardson, director of external affairs at SEUK, worked full-time compressed hours – usually five days into four – since she started at the organisation. But just over a year ago, after her young son was diagnosed with leukemia, Richardson needed to start working part-time. 
“I would have resigned with a normal employer but mine has been very supportive,” she says. “My boss convinced me it would be possible.” She says that to make the arrangement work it has been important to be open and honest with colleagues at the organisation and anyone she works with outside of it about her circumstances. 
“It’s about managing expectations, and being clear with people when you will and won’t be there,” she says. “Using technology, like Outlook, and keeping it up-to-date is really important.”
5 top tips for hiring part-timers
1. Don't offer flexible work out of social obligation – only do it for business reasons
2. Encourage delegation and prioritisation so people learn to say no to less important things
3. Build a culture that is more task-orientated and less time-focused
4. Organise team-building days to give part-time workers a sense of the organisation's culture
5. Use technology to keep colleagues up-to-date on when people will and won't be working