Slivers-of-Time Working is a new scheme that uses unskilled workers to perform routine, but essential, tasks. Tonye Brown explains

A new form of employment is beginning to emerge in the UK. It can cut costs for primary care trusts and bring marginalised local people into economic activity. Slivers-of-Time Working is a way of getting essential, but unskilled, tasks done around the organisation.

Tower Hamlets was the first primary care trust to use Slivers-of-Time workers. When the Healthcare for London consultation document was announced, it was made clear that PCTs were expected to circulate it rapidly, along with other materials. But the date each trust would get its lorryload of copies was not clear.

Normally, experienced staff would have been pulled off other duties to stuff envelopes on the day. Instead, executive officer Mark Docherty accessed a government-funded online marketplace for Slivers-of-Time. It allows organisations to buy the time of local people for short periods, at short notice if required.

Mr Docherty used this facility to wait until he knew the truck was on its way. "We were determined to get the document out of the door the day it arrived. If the copies came in the morning, I'd need 10 people working all day to get it done. If I didn't get the copies until lunchtime, I'd book 20 people just for the afternoon on that day."

Once Healthcare for London was dispatched, the PCT began looking at how else it might use this pool of local people who wanted to work ultra-flexibly.

Julie Dublin is PA to the chief executive. Her responsibilities include booking community outreach projects. She started using Slivers-of-Time sellers for leafleting, assembling mailouts and data entry. The flexibility was useful.

"For our smoking cessation campaigns, we'd typically book 20 or more Slivers-of-Time workers for a three-hour shift to leaflet at Tube stations or superstores. It was important to us that they were Tower Hamlets residents and that they badly needed the work," she says. "It also helped that we could roll projects on day to day, depending on the business need."

Other London PCTs followed, including Newham and Ealing. By doing so, they have increased the reach of a scheme that was started with funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, now going forward as a social enterprise.

New labour

Slivers-of-Time Working tackles an often overlooked problem in the labour market. Millions of people in the UK cannot hold down a full-time job, but they could do odd "bits of work" on their own terms, at times of their choosing.

This group of people includes carers, parents with complex childcare needs and anyone with an unpredictable medical condition, and those with some partial employment but who need more if they are to avoid benefits. What these people want is to decide which hours, if any, they could work: today, tomorrow or any date in the future. Otherwise they are going to be part of the 20 per cent of working-age adults who remain detached from the labour market.

It is not only the NHS that can profitably use this fragmented workforce. Buyers of Slivers-of-Time services include caterers, retailers, cinema chains, distribution companies and housing associations.

The need for this new form of personalised working is only just beginning to be quantified. Government-commissioned research shows that 13.7 million people need to work the Slivers-of-Time way in the UK at some point each year. When the possibility is explained, 68 per cent of target groups say they would like to try it immediately.

Slivers-of-Time Working started in the East End of London in 2005. After two years of testing, it is now spreading. Markets are under way in Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Kent and Cambridgeshire. A PCT in these areas can start spreading work directly into their local communities immediately, just by registering with the agency that offers the market in their area.

Elsewhere, a PCT could be a catalyst for getting a market launched, possibly in partnership with their local authority. A market can start anywhere there is a significant first employer willing to hire in this new way. Combine the spend on unskilled contingent labour of a local authority and a PCT and you easily have the basis for a market that will attract a variety of private sector employers as it gets off the ground.

Market development

This process has just happened in Hammersmith and Fulham in London. The council started a market by committing spend on cleaning, catering and other areas where Slivers-of-Time workers can be cheaper than conventional temps.

A pool of child transport supervisors checked by the Criminal Records Bureau was established for one-hour bookings, to take vulnerable children to and from appointments. Hammersmith and Fulham PCT followed, using local people for leafleting on smoking cessation, in response to changing conditions at different locations.

This fragmented working aligns with the NHS wellness agenda. The Department for Work and Pensions spends£800m a year on employment programmes run by the private sector. These programmes reward companies for getting claimants into a job and off benefits as quickly as possible. That makes financial sense - but it does little for people who have slim prospects of a sustainable job.

The NHS needs to appreciate how life-changing even small amounts of work can be. Imagine someone who has been unemployed for five years, suffers from depression and cares for an elderly relative. Just doing two hours of genuine paid work one week can transform their self-esteem, social networks and prospects.

National director for health and work Dame Carol Black has highlighted the connection between access to work and well-being. Access to work should not be confused with having a job. Many people can work only in their own very limited way. PCTs and local authorities have a key role in starting the ultra-flexible local labour markets these people need.