Should public servants work part time to save colleagues' jobs?

Show comments

When the global financial crisis hammered markets six years ago, some companies – such as consulting giants KPMG and Deloitte – avoided large job losses by asking staff to work part time.

It suited everyone: the companies cut spending on wages but kept their employees' skills. The employees kept their jobs.

Yet the Australian Public Service is reacting to its own financial crisis – steep budget cuts – very differently.

At a time almost all agencies are shedding jobs, the government has suggested they use the current wage negotiations to ask staff to work longer hours. (An outcome, by the way, that actually reduces labour productivity.)


The APS already lags behind other employers in using part-time staff. Last year, just over one in seven federal public servants worked part time, about half the national workforce rate.

Male public servants are even less likely to deviate from the full-time norm. Just 4.3 per cent worked part-time in 2013 – they are about four times less likely than men in other industries to do so.

How is your agency cutting expenses? Send your confidential tips to

One senior human resources manager in a government agency says encouraging staff to work fewer hours "is a useful way to cut wages spending". It also allows agencies to avoid separation payouts, which are expected to reach record levels in the coming year.

However, the HR official says a common sticking point is individual managers "with micromanaging tendencies or who are poor planners", who want only full-time staff on their teams.

Public Service Commission data shows the worst agencies (or perhaps the agencies with the most to gain) are the Defence Department, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Infrastructure Department and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Workplaces with many female staff are more likely to have part-time workers, but it's not always the case. (The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, has a low proportion of part-time staff, but notes that "for operational reasons, DFAT staff are not able to access permanent part-time work while on an overseas posting".)

The head of Meyer Vandenberg Lawyers' employment law team, Jennifer Wyborn, has advised government agencies to consider offering staff reduced hours to help accommodate budget cuts.

"Part-time work can be very difficult to practically manage but, if done successfully, can boost productivity in the workplace and offer flexibility to staff," she says.

Ms Wyborn says managers must set clear expectations and employees "must be prepared to put a strong business case forward as to why a part-time arrangement should be considered".

"One practical solution that was implemented in some businesses during the [global financial crisis] was to convert two full-time five-day-a-week positions to two four-day-a-week positions that job-shared. This reduced the wage bill for the business and avoided job losses," she says.

"For employees, it is important to manage time in the workplace well so as to avoid the trap of working the equivalent of a full-time job for a part-time wage. For managers, being open to the idea of part-time work and being prepared to trust staff with these arrangements will often reap great rewards."

Not all public servants want to work part time, but the latest APS survey shows about 30 per cent are not satisfied with their work-life balance.

The main barrier, at least anecdotally, is an old one: how do you assess a public servant's work? In the absence of obvious ways to measure performance, some managers fall back on the numbers of hours their staff spend in the office: thus, if an employee arrives early and leaves late, they must be a hard worker.

The APS will need more insightful, and modern, leadership than that to cope with the cuts to come.