IF THERE was a way for her to lead a pharmaceutical sales team on a contract basis, Ms Dawn Tam, 49, would rejoin the sector where she first cut her teeth in a heartbeat.

But though she continues to get calls from headhunters 16 years after leaving the industry, their offers are still only for a permanent employee.

"A lot of people actually want to work part-time now. And in my experience, I find that many companies can do more work on a project basis but they don't do so yet," she says.

No such arrangement existed in 1997, when she quit her job to spend more time on parenting. So Ms Tam founded her own company where she pioneered a different employment model.

At enrichment education provider IQ Kidz, she has built up an 80-strong pool of certified teachers who work entirely on a choose-your-own-hours basis.

She sends out e-mail notices about the one- to two-hour slots of art, speech and drama, and science classes her company provides to pre-school centres and primary schools. Teachers sign up to suit their own schedules.

"Sometimes they even bring their kids to work," she adds.

This model has allowed her to bring housewives into the workforce, as well as degree holders who left full-time jobs they could not scale down, for more time with their families.

Teachers have stayed with her for more than 10 years because the arrangement gives them control over their time, which they say is hard to find elsewhere.

What Ms Tam does to empower her whole company is something experts believe other organisations can do as well, to help their permanent staff have a better work-life balance.

In particular, they say that drawing out the economically inactive, instead of piling more duties on those already working, is a good solution, given Singapore's tight labour market.

Many companies cut their headcount during the 2008 global recession and have not stepped up hiring again, leaving the same permanent staff to do more work as business began picking up, they say.

Ms Stella Tang, the Singapore director of recruitment firm Robert Half, says: "What we tell companies is that they should hire contract staff to take care of the workload, to ensure that it takes away the burden from the permanent staff."

This can be done for predictable peak periods, such as at financial year-end for an accounting firm, where contract staff can be brought on board for simpler tasks like data entry. This can also help to cover staff who are away on longer leave.

The plus point of this approach, says Ms Tang, is that it is generally easier to get approval from the head office for contract, rather than full-time, workers.

Human resources practitioners say the use of an interim workforce is particularly amenable to the services sector, and in sales and business development work.

It can also apply to senior-level project management work, not just lower-level duties. They say a company can build up and manage its own interim pool instead of turning to recruitment firms.

According to Singapore National Employers Federation executive director Koh Juan Kiat, some companies already plug their manpower gap by using flexible arrangements to attract housewives, retirees and students to work.

But Mr Koh notes that they must have sufficiently robust HR systems to achieve this.