By Jon Rhymes, co-founder of WorkGaps

Zero-hours contracts and temporary employment have received a lot of negative press, particularly in the run up to the general election, as political parties seek to reform the contracts or abolish them entirely. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have been particularly damning of zero-hours jobs – labelling them as an “epidemic”.

The ONS estimates that 600,000 people are currently using 1.8m zero-hours contracts, while other sources suggest that the total number could be as high as 2.7 million. With 8.6m people involved in part-time, temporary, or contract work, almost a third of the UK’s workforce, the question is: are zero-hours jobs here to stay, and could they be made to work better for both employers and workers?

Part-timers favour flexibility

Research suggests that casual contracts are important to both workers and businesses. For instance, a 2013 study conducted by the CIPD found that 47% of workers on zero-hours contracts were “very satisfied” or at least “satisfied” with their deal, with 72% valuing choice over the hours they worked. Part-timers appreciate the flexibility that casual contracts offer and employers can easily bolster their workforce, particularly during peak times.

In an uncertain economy, businesses are more likely to create a job if they can guarantee that costs will be covered through customer demand. And economists acknowledge that Britain’s flexible labour market has been a key factor in its economic recovery.

Zero-hours contracts have become an integral part of employment life in the UK, and are probably here to stay. The research suggests that many workers don’t see their zero-hours contracts as a problem. However, employers that abuse the rules do cause problems, such as through enforcement of undesirable aspects of part-time contracts like exclusivity clauses, which affect up to 20% of zero-hours workers. The fact is that bad employers can and do abuse many aspects of any employment legislation.

Since almost half of those surveyed are satisfied with their zero-hour contracts, should there be more focus on unscrupulous employment practices from a handful of employers, instead legislating for the whole market?

Forcing businesses to convert zero-hours work into ‘regular’ jobs risks those job opportunities disappearing completely, with fewer jobs being created in the future. While all the political parties have been vocal on the topic, there have been few, if any, credible proposals put forward. Think of all the work arrangements where people have an agreement to work when they are required, for example a gardener, a software developer, or a third-party contractor for the local council. It will be both extremely challenging and inflexible for businesses or individuals to guarantee a minimum amount of work to every person that has this type of flexible working relationship. Legislation could mean more unemployed, higher costs and slower growth for businesses.

Take advantage of technology

It is clear that very many UK workers depend on zero-hours contracts to cover living costs. Whether the contracts are good or bad, any change to legislature is going to take a serious amount of time, due both to the complexity of the issue and the number of people that it would affect.

Rather than creating more red tape for businesses and depriving people of jobs, innovative technology, accessible through a smart phone app or desktop software, can help workers manage their part-time employment more effectively and take control over their work-life balance. For example, sharing a simple online calendar, showing a worker’s availability for shifts, would dramatically reduce the need for ad hoc communication between employers and workers, and make it far easier for workers to manage multiple part-time jobs. Most part-time workers are not provided with corporate technology devices, and so communication and the paperwork can be challenging for all parties. However, with almost two thirds of the UK population now carrying around more compute power than it first took NASA to land on the moon, why are we not using that modern technology to make life easier both for the workers and those hiring them?

Effective use of technology will also help employers significantly reduce the cost of recruiting and managing part-time workers. In 2014, UK businesses spent an almost unbelievable £28 billion on recruitment, of which over 90% was spent on part-time and contract-based workers. Technology that can match skills, experience, location and availability for work will make the recruitment process faster, better and cheaper for both employers and workers.

Workforce management is finally maturing beyond its legacy of time clocks and scheduling, incorporating mobile access and communications to better support flexible working. The pocket compute power many of us now take for granted, coupled with the advances in mobile network data transfer capabilities, are the keys to enabling smarter, flexible working. Technology – not more red tape and regulation – must therefore be embraced, as it can help transform those involved in the part-time and temporary job market for good.