Part-time working tends to conjure up one image more than any other: of a mum dashing from the office to get to the school gates on time. True, 80 per cent of part-time workers in the UK are women, and many have young families.
But this is only part of the picture; out of a workforce of 39.9 million, 9.5 million - many of them women - have flexible working arrangements, ranging from job shares and school term-time working to flexitime and compressed hours.
Some, such as Jane Cracknell, fit into the traditional image of the part-time worker. Cracknell, HR manager at the community support service Southern Focus Trust, returned part-time after maternity leave two years ago. "It was a kind of experiment for the organisation," she admits, "but it's been a big success."
Alex Raikes, fundraising and development coordinator at Support Against Racist Incidents, says: "A lot of it is about keeping your foot in the door." A single mother of four, Raikes has worked part-time with the charity since the birth of her first child 10 years ago. "With children, work-life balance and stress maintenance are more important than anything else," she says.
Ben Emmens, director of HR services at People in Aid, the international network of development and humanitarian assistance agencies, has crammed a standard 35-hour working week into four days since the birth of his son in 2004. "It's been much easier than I'd anticipated," he says. "The longer you do it, the easier it becomes."
Emmens is one of an increasing number of new fathers who are choosing to work flexibly. The proportion has almost tripled, from 11 per cent in 2002 to 31 per cent today, according to statistics from the Women and Work Commission.
Not everyone changes their working patterns for family reasons, though. Larry McCarthy, communications manager for Children With Leukaemia, the childhood cancer charity, says. "I was volunteering three days a week and thought it was such a lovely way to lead my life. When I was asked 'Would you like a permanent, full-time job?' I said 'No - but I would like a permanent part-time job.'"
A part-time role as communications manager with Richard House Children's Hospice has allowed Elliot Frankal to pursue a freelance writing career. The departure of the previous manager, coupled with a tight funding situation, led to the post being advertised as part-time. "I was a bit of a guinea pig, but it worked well," he says.
So flexible working is ideal for many workers. But what are the benefits for the organisation? According to Fran Wilson, HR adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the answer is 'plenty'. "Many organisations say they get increasingly good productivity from part-timers," she says. "It's really worth looking after them and making sure they have a good support network if they have problems."
Philippa Palmer, the RNID'S director of health programmes, agrees. She is a mother of three and works three days a week. "Organisations have a huge amount to gain; they get 100 per cent of the brain at perhaps 60 per cent of the cost," she says.
Palmer's line manager is Brian Lamb, who is also the charity's director of communications. "We recruit and train highly skilled people," he says. "By providing flexibility, we can retain that expertise in a way we couldn't otherwise. It's better to have some of their time than no time at all."
According to Children With Leukaemia's McCarthy, time constraints also make part-timers more efficient. "An employer gets quite a lot more," she says. "You can't say 'I'll finish it tomorrow', because you might not be in for another two days. It also keeps you fresher and more focused; you don't get quite so weary."
Edward Copisarow, McCarthy's manager and chief executive of the charity, believes his organisation has benefited from the arrangement with McCarthy. "It can help considerably if people are doing something worthwhile with the rest of their time, whether it's racing horses or bringing up children," he adds.
Even though there are such clear benefits for both employee and employer, there are still relatively few part-time opportunities available at senior level. Petra Wilton, head of public affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, reckons it is crucial that organisations embrace senior-level flexible working. "We are increasingly seeing managers demanding more flexible arrangements," she says. This is borne out by the findings of a recent CMI study, Motivation Matters, which noted that about 20 per cent of managers are attracted to organisations offering flexible working. In addition, the Government has started to look at ways to increase the number of more senior part-time jobs, most notably through recent initiatives set up by the Women and Work Commission.
Moving from one flexible job to another can be problematic. "You get into a position and negotiate because you've proved yourself, but it's much harder to make the next move," says Lucy Drescher, campaigns and public policy officer at Sense, the charity that works with deafblind people.
"The voluntary sector needs to think about this one," agrees the RNID's Palmer. "The message is that there's very little problem with current employees going part-time. But if you're looking to move, organisations don't necessarily look at how to offer flexibility to attract employees."
This is backed up by some recruitment experts in the third sector. "Out of, say, 60 jobs a month, we might have two or three that are part-time," says Rory White, director of recruitment firm Flow Caritas. "But I see a lot of candidates who want to do part-time work, and it's an area that we're trying to develop."
Jonathan Dearth, recruitment consultant at The Right Ethos, agrees. "Full-time is still the default," he says. "Organisations tend to think that they'll get the best candidates that way."
This is not always the case, though, as Sarah Hendy of PAS Consultants points out. "We actually place a lot of good part-time roles," she says, although she acknowledges that this may be partly because the consultancy operates outside London.
"Also, we're often asked to recruit two part-time fundraisers; that way, the charity gets two different ways of working and two sets of contacts." She notes, too, that lack of funding often leads to part-time roles.
Much of the reluctance on the part of employers is caused by logistical concerns - and many employees do accept that there are disadvantages. "When you're in work every day, you pick up the 'beat' of the office," says Ian White, who has worked one or two days a week for Handicap International UK, which works with disabled people, while studying. "It's hard to quantify everything when you're not always there,"
Sari's Raikes agrees: "It has not been an easy journey. You have to be quite strong."
The CIPD's Wilson suggests that the root of the problem is often that the new role has not been thought through. "People often stay in the same role, but working fewer hours," she says. "This creates a lot of stress. Organisations need to look at what the person wants as well as at business needs."
So what can employers and employees alike do to improve the situation? According to Cathy Hill, part-time marketing and communications officer at Fight for Sight, the medical research charity, maintaining goodwill is crucial. "Make sure you have good relationships with your manager and the people you work with, and don't expect people to pick things up when you leave," she says.
Fight for Sight has adopted a flexible working structure; out of 12 paid employees, half are part-time. "The key thing is communication; that's the only way this works," says Annu Mayor, director of fundraising, and Hill's line manager. "We have a whiteboard, which is the first thing you see when you walk in the door. Every morning we check where everyone is; if someone's working from home, their email is redirected. It's really simple."
She adds that it is not always easy, but that she is determined to make it work.
Sense has also found effective ways of communicating, as Sue Brown, head of campaigns and public policy, explains. "We have one common day a week when everyone is expected to work, which is when we have team meetings," she says. "We also use an online diary system that everyone can access - that's a really helpful tool."
Flexibility is vital, she adds. "Because of the campaign team's work, we have to be flexible; all part-timers change their days occasionally."
Finally, if your employer is one of those that has yet to grasp the benefits of flexible working, they would do well to consider the resourcefulness of Baby Milk Action's Mike Brady. The campaigns and marketing coordinator had an 18-month spell working two days a week - from Brazil.
"I stayed in contact using things like the telecommunications software Skype," he says. "I was able to do much of what I would do in the UK because it's internet or phone-based. Communications are so cheap now, it doesn't matter where your home is."
SEVEN STEPS TO GOING PART-TIME
1. Know your rights. By law, you have the right to request a part-time job if you have children under six, a disabled child under 18 or are caring for an adult. If you have a disability, your employer has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments'; these include allowing flexible working.
2. Investigate the impact that reduced hours will have on your income, and check out what help is available. Nine out of 10 families with children qualify for Child Tax Credit; you may also be entitled to Working Tax Credit. Three and four-year-olds are also entitled to some free childcare.
3. Speak to colleagues who work flexible hours - what works for them?
4. Put yourself in your line manager's shoes. What might they be worried about? Show them the potential benefits, such as reduced stress and increased productivity.
5. Think about how your post will be covered when you're not in. Can colleagues pick up from where you've left off?
6. Be prepared to be flexible. Equally, be clear about what you cannot commit to.
7. Agree to work flexibly for a trial period of, say, 12 weeks, followed by regular reviews.