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Why are companies in general opposed to employees working shorter hours?

Shorter hours means less expenses for salaries. And while a lot of the fixed costs for office space and stay the same, this argument is less valid for companies where a lot of employees work at the client's place. At the same time it could give them a competitive advantage when hiring, which is important in fields where people are hard to find (software development) and recruiters charge a lot.

The issue has become even more important now with coronavirus and the schools having shut down. My employer wants me to use holiday-time to make up for missed hours. I would much rather take a temporary pay-cut and spend the holidays holidaying. Knowing an answer to this question could help me negotiate.

The context is Europe, specifically the Netherlands. This may be relevant, because I believe that on top of salary, employers have other costs per employee that may influence the calculation.

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    Why are companies in general opposed to employees working shorter hours? Says who? And what is a problem you are trying to solve? Can you rework your question to describe your situation and ask how to achieve x? Like "I tried to get reduced hours by company refused for XYZ". – Tymoteusz Paul Mar 24 at 17:04
  • Not the Netherlands, but might be of interest: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/24224/… – nvoigt Mar 25 at 8:00
  • 1
    Do the Netherlands even have a system where you just can work less hours for a month? I would guess that almost require a contract change now and then again in a few months when it stops, leading to a lot of overhead in HR to manage that. – KillianDS Mar 25 at 8:04
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    I think this question is founded on wrong premises. I moved to Netherlands a couple of months ago, and when I look at job ads it's really popular to offer 36-hours work week as a standard – pstrag Mar 25 at 11:06

10 Answers 10

35
  1. Benefits/overhead are not lower. The salary cost may be the same, but someone who works 40 hours a week and someone who works 32 hours a week will have the same dental expenses, same tech costs, etc.

  2. It makes scheduling meetings messy. My team lets you take one flex day off every two weeks. Even with just one day off per team member, always a Monday or a Friday, numerous tasks get blocked for a day or two because of this and in practice, the person on flex needs to have access to Teams a lot of the time.

  3. Differences in the kinds of people who take fewer hours. There is a strong perception that people who work fewer hours are less dedicated to the job or less focused. Availability also becomes an issue, as someone who chooses 32 hours of work probably scheduled uses for the other time. The standard 40 hours a week worker can scale to 50 hours temporarily without much hassle unless they have kids. How much this matters may differ by country depending on culture and labor regulations.

Getting a lot of good comments below, so will add more here:

  1. Hiring is costly. The cost of hiring a full-time worker instead of a part-time worker would usually be the same but utilizing part-time workers means that more are required. Credit to dyesdyes.

  2. Training costs are the same. It takes as much effort to train someone to do a task for 40 hours a week as it takes to train them to do it for 20 hours a week. Credit to xLeitix.

  3. Some jobs can't be done part-time. Part-timers are an acceptable substitute for full-time workers when one worker can easily be replaced with another for no loss of efficiency. Otherwise, the lack of availability on the part of the part-time worker can block the progress of other employees. Credit to xLeitix.

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    AFAIK, social insurance fees/contributions in the Netherlands are proportional to the wage, so not an offset. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 24 at 17:45
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    I'd put 2 and 3 into slightly different words: people asking for part time usually want to gain flexibility for themselves, and this "costs" the employer flexibility. With full-time job, the expectations to flexibility are basically normed (unless it's work in shifts, roughly 9 - 12 and 13 - 16 hrs each work day everyone will be available). We're not talking about a hypothetical part time where the employer tells the employee to stay late on Thu for the meeting at 8 pm, and on Fri morning sends a text that they can stay home today till noon (where flexibility woud be traded the other way). – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 24 at 23:52
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    This also means the company will have to hire more people, and hiring people is really costly, in time and money. – dyesdyes Mar 25 at 10:33
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    The biggest "overhead" I think is that you need to train a highly qualified worker the same independently of whether they work 20 hours or 40 per week. – xLeitix Mar 25 at 11:08
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    Point 1 is irrelevant in the Netherlands, social security taxes are a percentage of wage, and health insurance (outside of the social security taxes) aren't paid by the employer. – Mark Rotteveel Mar 25 at 14:55
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Not all a business' costs are proportionate to the hours their employees work.

Let's assume employees work half their hours and get half their pay, and that they produce half the amount of sellable product (let's assume that for simplicity). Employee wages are variable costs.

However the company is still paying the full cost of building rental, insurance, interest on loans, heating, equipment etc. These are called fixed costs. So they are getting half the revenue but paying more than half the costs, so they make less than half the profit.

Low profit is bad whatever the reason.

Moreover even if a company could still miraculously make half the amount of profit by working half hours, that still means they are making half the profit, which makes them less attractive to investors compared with another company that managed to keep making its full profit.

  • "Low profit is bad whatever the reason" Ahem. See Amazon's business strategy – Michael Mar 25 at 11:14
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    Yes, there are exceptions. But lower profits than expected, or lower profits than comparable companies, are almost always bad. – DJClayworth Mar 25 at 12:37
  • You said "Low profit is bad whatever the reason". You didn't say "almost always". Profit is a poor indicator of performance, since it doesn't account for reinvestment. Plenty of huge companies are doing well and making modest or no profit. Twitter, Tesla, Snapchat, Uber, YouTube up until quite recently. – Michael Mar 25 at 15:15
  • @Michael I deliberately simplified my answer to make it more easily understandable. – DJClayworth Mar 25 at 15:27
  • I would suggest that you at least don't bold the aspects of your simplification that you know are wrong – Michael Mar 25 at 16:04
5

Specifically in the Netherlands you have the legal right to lower your working hours (work part time) in exchange for a proportional salary cut. Your employer legally has to agree to this. However, in the case you want to work more hours, your employer is allowed to deny the request to increase your working hours.

You also have a right to temporary unpaid (partial) leave, 'Levensloop regeling', but you might have spent that allotment already.

Thirdly, since your working conditions are not safe, VCA insists you do not work until the problem is resolved. It actually does not matter that your employer can't help it either. This does in no way oblige you to take holiday.

In short, the Dutch law is behind you, and actually thinks you're pretty accommodating by taking a pay cut.

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  • Your first point is definitely true but there are some additional rules that apply. The third point is not entirely true since i can work from home, but realistically i'm not getting work done when i also try to get my child to do their schoolwork. My questions is mainly why in general it is such an uphill battle to work shorter. – Ivana Mar 25 at 14:05
  • Is there a reference for the legal right? I'm just asking because I'd assume there are some common sense limitations on this - I can't imagine that an employer has to acquiesce to any employee's request for any amount of hours. Just as a simple example: I doubt teachers are going to be able to cut hours without the school having a say in it. – Flater Mar 25 at 15:01
  • An employer is also allowed to deny requests for decreasing working hours if that would lead to scheduling problems (eg if you're working a shop, and reducing your working hours would lead to no one available to work in the shop certain hours). – Mark Rotteveel Mar 25 at 15:07
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I think the biggest question is if the granularity of the tasks is fine enough.

If you do things like "put thing A in box B, repeat" it doesn't matter if it is done by one person 8 hours a day or by two persons 4 hours per day or one person 2 hours and the other 6 hours, and so on ...

If you have a complex task that takes you several days, it can affect delivery dates. For example someone focused working 40 hours gets a task done in a week, same task by a 20 hour worker takes two weeks or maybe even a third because he has to get into the flow after the weekend.

If you split the complex task on two persons working 20 hours each, there will be a lot of overhead for them to synchronize their work, so they will also end up in the second week, effectively costing more.

There are of course also benefits:

If the 20 hour work has a weekend in between, he might have time to think about the task and gets it done more efficient.

If one of the two workers gets sick, you still have a redundancy with knowledge about the project.

So it really depends on the tasks and the business model of the company. And how urgent the client maybe needs a product, imagine 6 months vs 12 months vs maybe 9 months for the examples above.

Generally I think people who work less hours are more relaxed and healthy and don't make so many mistakes as someone who is working nonstop the whole week, so you have less problems with sick days, burnout, turnover.

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3

Time is money.

A business takes your productivity and turns it into profit.

Less productivity, less profit.

Expressed differently, if working less has no impact on profit, why not simply reduce your hours and wages to zero. A lot less to worry about and the profit remains the same.

There is an argument that longer hours does not mean more productivity, but this is probably the wrong time to make such an argument.

I haven't even touched on how businesses often have contracts to fill, and plans to keep.

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    IMHO this argument is borderline strawman. Importantly after the more-or-less convincing thought experiment leading to the conclusion that total time worked and profit are not proportional (to which I agree, even though I don't find the argument particularly convincing), there is no argument why integer full-time-equivalents are optimal. After all, part time doesn't imply going 1 -> 0.x, it may as well be implemented as 1 -> 1.x – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 24 at 17:33
  • How is it strawman? I wasn't making an argument that time worked and profit were not proportionaI just pointed out that some people would argue that. Anyway, in answering 1 -> 1.x That certainly happens. It's called overtime. But overtime penalties and the cost of replacing employees due to burn out will reduce the profit margins. I did not say integer FTE is optimal at all. – Gregory Currie Mar 24 at 23:17
  • It's not clear to me that you "pointed out that some people would argue that". What strawman do I see? You extrapolate from 1 FTE to 0 FTE, to then show that 0 FTE doesn't work (implicitly). But 0 FTE is very far from 1 FTE, and irrelevant for the usual meanings of asking for part time. Because there are some people working part-time with very few hours/week, I put the "borderline". (And of course someone whose work can be left undone without negative impact on profit will be let go). And btw. 1.x FTE doesn't imply overhours, it can be done by OP working 0.x + hiring another 1 FTE. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 24 at 23:37
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    Because the OP has said "shorter hours means less expenses for salaries" I think it's a fair assumption the OP is not suggesting bringing on part-timers to fill the gap. – Gregory Currie Mar 25 at 1:50
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    Isn't the premise of the question really that the total number of hours would be the same, just spread out over more employees? If it was a factory, 3 shifts of 8 hours would make more profits than 1 shift of 24 hours because the machines wouldn't be idle for 2/3 of the time (as 24 hours shifts would not be sustainable for very long). – Peter Mortensen Mar 25 at 3:14
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For now, I'd approach the employer and ask - I can imagine they may be very happy to temporarily lower your hours.
The situation may be legally asymmetric: employees may ask (or even have a right to reduce hours) but the employer may not be allowed to suggest a proportional reduction in work-time and wages to you. While I don't know whether that is the case in the Netherlands, this is the case e.g. in Germany, and labor legislation tends to be comparable due to EU.


In general, there are various factors that may play a role for whether part-time is easy/good (leading either to higher absolute profit or to more profit per expense and/or capital needed) to implement for a particular employee or not.

  • (+) There's literature on overall higher efficiency of part-time workers.

  • (+/-) This may allow a business to fill positions with specialists where less than a full employee is required. (More relevant for small businesses)
    But only iff a good match between skill set AND work time needs/wishes is found.

  • If two people share one full-time job there is a trade-off:

    • (+) Two heads are better than one
    • (-) There are communication losses that do not occur between one and the same person.
  • (-) A company invests a certain amount of training into each employee until the employee is able to work efficiently.

  • (-) A part-time employee may be slower in gaining professional experience.

  • (-) For certain employees it may be very difficult to find & hire a "part-time partner".

  • (-) In practice, part-time often correlates with low flexibility/particular temporal wishes: many people want to work mornings only (when kids are in kindergarden/school), very few want to work afternoon only.
    This can be very costly for the company since they need to provide more work space, equipment etc. to get the same amount of work done.
    So it's not only that fixed costs stay the same, they may even increase. And that still holds if the work is done at a client's.


The following is specific for , but it may give you some starting points to search whether similar rules exist in the Netherlands.

  • German employees have the right to work part-time on request (subject to some conditions and there exceptions for small companies, there are also some valid reasons why an employer can refuse)
    One important condition is a notification period of 3 months, and the employer then has 2 months to refuse if they have grounds to do so.
    E.g. they are not able to find someone to fill the part-time gap, and thus the employee working part-time would cause disproportionate disruption of the business processes -> refusal.

  • They also have a right to temporarily switch to part time/lower work hours (subject to somewhat stronger conditions than the general move to part-time).

  • The reverse is not true: an emplyer usually cannot one-sidedly demand that an employee should work fewer hours for proportionally less wage.

  • But under specific circumstance (such as the Covid pandemic right now), short-time working(Kurzarbeit) is possible. German Kurzarbeitergeld (partial compensation for lost wage due to short-time working works in a way that the company can get this money back from unemployment insurance. But one of the conditions is that first, (old) holidays and overtime must have been used up.
    Werktijdverkorting looks as if the Netherlands follow a different strategy right now, though.

Right now, the local economic programs to deal with the Covid situation may give the question totally different answers than under more usual circumstances. The only solution to that is again: talk to your employer.

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    The question is not about replacing a full time worker with two part time workers, which seems to be the basis for a lot of your points. – Gregory Currie Mar 25 at 1:50
  • Well done for actually mentioning the legislation that is relevant to this. – Mike Brockington Mar 25 at 10:06
  • @GregoryCurrie: A large part of my answer answers the general questions "Why are shorter hours such a problem for companies?" and "Why are companies in general opposed to employees working shorter hours?" that OP explicitly asks (which I don't read as restricted to overall hours worked for the tasks in question must be lower, just as some people working at these tasks work less than 1 FTE). A smaller part is dedicated to the current situation where not everyone can work to the usual extent and thus the overall workload is lower. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 25 at 14:04
  • @GregoryCurrie: Moreover, OP indicates in another comment "My questions is mainly why in general it is such an uphill battle to work shorter." – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 25 at 14:07
  • "There's literature on overall higher efficiency of part-time workers." I believe you, but I do wonder how it stacks up to the time lost by two part-timers having to relay information (more so than a single full timer needs to). – Flater Mar 25 at 15:03
2

My employer wants me to use holiday-time to make up for missed hours. I would much rather take a temporary pay-cut and spend the holidays holidaying. Knowing an answer to this question could help me negotiate.

At least in Germany, employers can't make their employees to take their holidays just because they can't provide safe working conditions in this situation. Also when public life (and by consequence schools) is shut down and children need to be taken care of by the employee temporarily, this doesn't necessarily mean that holidays or pay-cuts are in order.

For reference (German sources):

The context is Europe, specifically the Netherlands.

Look up your local laws. Research specifically about the current situation. The current situation is not the general case.

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  • The legal situation in Germany is a bit more complicated than outlined here. The rules for short-time working/Kurzarbeit (which is the main instrument here) do foresee that certain parts/types of the holidays (e.g. right now leftover holidays from 2019) should be taken first, also over hours and flex time. See e.g. arbeitsagentur.de/datei/… While there are no precise regulations right now how much of the holidays must be taken now before Kurzarbeit kicks in, here's a lawyer that predicts it may turn out to be as much as half or 1/3 of the... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 25 at 14:39
  • ... annual holidays: rp-online.de/panorama/coronavirus/…. In the end, this will be decided by the unemployment office rather than the employer, because they tell the employer what they have to do (e.g. make employees use holidays) in order to get the Kurzarbeit approved. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 25 at 14:40
  • Can they not order "Betriebsruhe" (tell people to not come to work and take time off instead), analogous to what some companies do over Christmas/New Year? – Jan Mar 25 at 15:59
  • @Jan: AFAIK no or at least not easily because Betriebsruhe must be announced well in advance so employees can plan accordingly. I don't know whether the Betriebsrat (employee committee) agreeing to Betriebsruhe now on comparably short notice leaves a loophole for those companies with Betriebsrat. In any case, Kurzarbeit can be done in a way that those who can work safely can go on working and only those who'd be exposed to high infection risks stay at home. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 25 at 18:15
1

Perhaps I have missed this in another answer, but one significant difference between a pay cut and holiday is:
Taking extra free time with a pay cut means you are absent longer than your normal holiday time.

While a company without much work may be happy to give employees extra unpaid time off these days, a company with enough work prefers to NOT miss you longer.

1

The top answers are already good, but I wanted to reply to part of your question:

Shorter hours means less expenses for salaries. And while a lot of the fixed costs for office space and stay the same, this argument is less valid for companies where a lot of employees work at the client's place.

For the sake of example, let's take this to an extreme. While the wage cost may be exactly the same, do you think 40 people working 1 hour a week can perform as well as 1 person who works 40 hours a week?
They won't. Because they will spend more time communicating with the 39 others than they will spend working.

Firstly, you already need to overlap their working times to person 1 can tell person 2 what happened, and then person 2 can tell person 3, and so on. That means you won't be able to staff your 40 employees for the duration of a full 40 hour work week.
Secondly, that overlap is time lost doubly. Both people will be busy talking to each other and will therefore not be working (not in the sense that a single employee would be working in silence). Any time a person loses on figuring out what the previous guy did, even if they do so by themselves, is still time lost. Any miscommunication, and time spent reading documentation that the previous guy also read, ... it always costs time.

Communication is an overhead cost. This is exactly why managers exist in the first place. Communication and team management is such a cost that for a sizeable group of people, it's literally cheaper to hire an additional person (the manager), because they will save the company more money (by streamlining the communication process) than they cost (the manager's wage).

In a more realistic scenario, where you'd e.g. change from a 40 hour work week to a 30 hour one; that still means you need to hire 1/3 more people (e.g. from 30 people to 40). All their communication will be a drain on work efficiency and therefore you will have lowered productivity.

And that's even assuming these people see eye to eye and don't do duplicate work or have to correct each other's work.

0

When you are working at a client site, then it is very likely that your employer gets paid by the client by the hour.

If you work less hours, then the client will pay less, and your employer receives less revenue.

Even worse, the client might insist that they have a contract for 40 hours a week. So if you work any less, then your employer is obligated to find someone else to work the remaining hours. Which is impractical for everyone involved.

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