Why aren't there more 80% jobs?

There’s been a bit of a trend recently for some companies to move to 4-day workweeks. This is making a decent amount of noise, but the actual number of companies offering this still seems pretty few and far between. It’s not hard to imagine why CEOs might feel this is risky, considering that many don’t even trust people to work from home.

What I don’t see much are 80% jobs, which are 32 hour jobs, at 80% salary. This should be a low-risk proposition that I think a lot of people in the tech industry would take, if it were an option.

My background

I grew up in the Netherlands, but I moved to Canada for my first programmer job at age 20. I stayed for a few years, moved back and started a job there, and eventually moved back to Canada again and pretty much settled here.

I got strong roots and professional experience in both places, but there was one thing that surprised me most in the Netherlands that I haven’t really seen in North America.

Apparently Netherlands has a very high rate of part-time careers. Statstics suggest that they are the highest in the world by a large margin. My personal experience matches this too. I know a number of people in the Netherlands that don’t work full-time, and I think there are more opportunities for part-time career jobs. I don’t see them much in North America.

My first-hand experience is when I was interviewing a few years into my career at a company named Ibuildings in Utrecht, Netherlands. After the interview I was told I pretty much had the job, and then the interviewer asked me if I wanted to work 4 or 5 days per week.

I only had Canadian work experience, so I was pretty shocked being asked this. Picking 4 days seemed like a no-brainer to me. I would get paid for 32 hours per week, instead of 40 and got to pick a day of the week I wanted off (I picked Friday). At this company I believe most people took the 4-day option. So yes, I got paid 20% less, but with the tax bracket I was in this was closer to 10%.

For me it was great. 5 days actually feels like a lot, and 2 days in a weekend never feels quite enough. A sentiment so common it’s boring talk about it. I used the extra time to work on open source, errands, and picked a few small freelance gigs here and there.

I’m leaning pretty socialist, but even with a capitalist hat on, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more. Why not give employees the option to do this? Not everyone will take the option, but for those that do here’s some advantages:

Advantages of offering 80% jobs

  • For the salary cost of 4 employees at 40 hours, you get 5 employees at 32 hours.
  • Those 5 employees are more rested, and may be generally happier.
  • There’s a lower risk of burn-out and attrition.
  • You get the combined experience of 5 people instead of 4.
  • Also I don’t believe for the 80% workers, you only get 80% output. Most people just aren’t productive all the time.
  • Advertising this as a benefit in your company may also be attractive to candidates for hiring.

There are also some drawbacks. Every employee will have some overhead such as a laptop, benefits and general admin. Probably a larger expense is the cost to recruit, although in the long run a lower attrition rate might make up for that a bit.

But my intuition tells me that this overhead is probably well worth the benefit of a smarter, larger, happier workforce.

Some notes:

  • I want to stress that working 4 days should be presented as a choice. Some people prefer to work more for more money, and you don’t want to scare them.
  • Another, even more lightweight option for irriationally risk-averse traditionalists is to offer 90% jobs, resulting in an extra day every 2 weeks.

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