Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Using part time & contract staff effectively

Over the last decade, organisations have increasingly looked to the use of part time and contract staff to fill gaps. The reasons vary.

In some cases the move is designed to meet the needs of particular people who for personal reasons do not want to work on a full time basis. In other cases, the appointments may be intended to fill a short term need or to give the organisation greater flexibility in managing head count.

Given that over half the Australian workforce is now part time, contract or casual you would think that organisations would have learned how to manage part time and contract staff effectively. The reality is rather different. Most organisations don't manage part time or contract staff especially well.

To my mind, the core reason for this lies the continuing tendency to treat part time and contract staff as though they were long term full time employees. The organisation knows that they are not, but it and managers behave as though they were. I thought that the best way of illustrating this was by example.

The Case of the Part Time Employee

Let's start with someone working say three days per week. We can consider two cases, the first a stand-alone employee, the second a job share arrangement.

The distinguishing feature about a part time employee is just that, they are part time. Their time is limited. If you treat them like a full time employee and expect them to be involved in all work group activities, then the proportion of their available time involved in such activities is likely to be significantly higher than the full time workers. Conversely, the amount of time available for their main job is reduced.

The next problem is more subtle. Work flows on regardless of the attendance of the part time employee. Decisions are made that affect the work of that employee in their absence.  Supervisors and indeed work colleagues do not adjust for their colleague's part time work. The end result can be wasted time and great frustration on the part of the part time employee.

In theory, this problem is overcome where work sharing is involved, because one of the work share partners is always there. In practice, however, problems can arise where their is ineffective hand-over of tasks between the work sharers.

To manage this properly, a proportion of time must be explicitly devoted to first defining hand-over procedures and then ensuring that they actually work.

The Contractor

It may seem self-evident to say this, but contractors are not full time employees. They are there for a limited time and have to judge their performance against the results they achieve while there. However, serious problems can arise where this simple fact is forgotten.

To consider this further, consider the case of someone employed on a three month contact to complete a specific assignment.

In normal circumstances, the contractor should come into a defined assignment. Then the first part of the assignment is spent on task refinement and on acquisition of the necessary specific in-house knowledge required for the work, while the last part of the three months is devoted to finalisation and hand-over.

Too often, the task or tasks have not been properly defined. Too often as well, the contractor is expected to participate in work related activities actually designed for a long term employee.

The worst results come where the manager effectively forgets that the contractor is there for a defined time. Many managers are busy, making it difficult for them to allocate effective time for consultation. Long term staff are used to this and can adjust, but for contractors it can mean periods sitting waiting for decisions or guidance that simply chews up available time.

Many managers are also inconsistent, changing priorities or directions without thought in response to immediate needs. That's fine if the contractor is actually doing a defined staff role for a short period. However, problems arise if the contractor is meant to be on a specific defined task. In worst case, this may simply not get done, or not get done to the required standard because of the interruptions. 

The Need for Thought

Contractors and part time staff can be an effective way of fillings gaps or of meeting specific needs. However, and this is my key point, this requires a degree of thought and indeed discipline that is sometimes simply not there.   

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