Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS — Remco Vermaire is ambitious and, at 37, the youngest partner in his law firm. His banker clients expect him on call constantly — except on Fridays, when he looks after his two children.
Fourteen of the 33 lawyers in Mr. Vermaire’s firm work part time, as do many of their high-powered spouses. Some clients work part time, too.
“Working four days a week is now the rule rather than the exception among my friends,” said Mr. Vermaire, the first man in his firm to take a “daddy day” in 2006. Within a year, all the other male lawyers with small children had followed suit.
For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women work part time. Female-dominated sectors like health and education operate almost entirely on job-sharing as even childless women and mothers of grown children trade income for time off. That has exacted an enduring price on women’s financial independence.
But in just a few years, part-time work has ceased being the prerogative of woman with little career ambition, and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.
Indeed, for a growing group of younger professionals, the appetite for a shorter, a more flexible workweek appears to be spreading, with implications for everything from gender identity to rush-hour traffic.
There are part-time surgeons, part-time managers and part-time engineers. From Microsoft to the Dutch Economics Ministry, offices have moved into “flex-buildings,” where the number of work spaces are far fewer than the staff who come and go on schedules tailored around their needs.
The Dutch culture of part-time work provides an advance peek at the challenges — and potential solutions — that other nations will face as well in an era of a rapidly changing work force.
“Our part-time experience has taught us that you can organize work in a rhythm other than nine-to-five,” said Pia Dijkstra, a member of Parliament and well-known former news anchor who led a task force on how to encourage women to work more. “The next generation,” she added, is “turning our part-time culture from a weakness into a strength.”
On average, men still increase their hours when they have children. But with one in three men now either working part time or squeezing a full-time job into four days, the “daddy day” has become part of Dutch vocabulary.
“From our conservative Dutch philosophy about motherhood comes this urgent wish to spend more time with the family,” said Karien van Gennip, a former trade minister who runs private banking and investment at ING.
Ms. Van Gennip has felt the change, and its almost accidental nature, firsthand. In 2004, to fierce criticism from Dutch media, she was the first cabinet member pregnant in office. In 2011, her bank is phasing in the second stage of replacing employees’ personal computers with laptops fully equipped for remote work.
“For a long time our part-time culture looked backwards,” she said. “Now that is changing because it has taken us closer to what everybody is looking for: work-life balance.”
Wouter Bos, a former finance minister and now four-day-a-week partner at the accounting firm KPMG, concurs: “More men want time with the family, but without giving up their careers. And more women want careers, but without giving up too much time with the family.”
He predicts “a huge fight” for the best workers, with flexibility the key.
The Netherlands once sought to keep women at home. Between 1904 and 1940, 12 different bills banned various categories of married women from paid work, perpetuating the tradition of domestic motherhood. If a woman wanted to work, a Dutch joke went, she had to become a nun.
The first part-time jobs for married women came with early labor shortages in the 1950s. But it wasn’t until 1996 that the government gave part-time employees equal status with full timers; in 2000 came the statutory right to determine work hours.
Seventy-five percent of Dutch women now work part time, compared to 41 percent in other European Union countries and 23 percent in the United States, according to Saskia Keuzenkamp at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research. Twenty-three percent of Dutch men have reduced hours, compared to 10 percent across the European Union and in the United States; another nine percent work a full week in four days.
When Jan Henk van der Velden, one of Mr. Vermaire’s law firm partners, joined 21 years ago, there were no female partners and no man would have dared ask to work part time. Today, six of the nine partners do. It works because the lawyers are flexible — when Mr. Vermaire has a court hearing on a Friday, for example, he swaps with his wife, who is normally off Mondays.
Of the 85 specialists at the Ziekenhuis Amstelland hospital south of Amsterdam, 31 are female and two-thirds work part time. Some surgeons even train part time, meaning a daily struggle to unify treatment of patients by several doctors.
“This would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago,” said Jacques Moors, the hospital’s chairman. “But if we insisted on full-time surgeons we would have a personnel problem: Three in four of our junior doctors are female.”
In male-dominated fields, the picture is more mixed. After Martina Dopper, a civil engineer at the company Ballast Nedam, requested a three-day week in 2007, she was given to understand that part time meant no promotion.
This month, however, she was promoted. “I hope this means more of my male colleagues will get an opportunity to spend more time with their families,” she said. So far, her own husband, also an engineer, does not dare for fear of jeopardizing his career.
Dutch fathers are becoming more vocal. A crop of recent books and Web sites advise men on combining career with family. Last year, a women’s magazine, Lof, set up the “Working Dad Prize,” which went to a man who won a court case against his employer enforcing his right to work part time.
The government awarded its own “Modern Man Prize” for breaking gender stereotypes. Rutger Groot Wassink won for co-founding a campaign that promotes part-time work for men — and for working four days a week himself. “Men have been excluded from this debate for too long,” said Mr. Wassink, noting a poll showing that 65 percent of Dutch fathers would like to work less.
Part-time work imposes its own rigidities. When so ubiquitous, part-time work “locks many people in,” said Janneke Platenga, professor of economics at Utrecht University. “When everyone at your daycare center works part time, do you really want to send your child five days a week and have him taken care of by several different teachers?”
At the Olefantje daycare center in Utrecht, only a handful of some 120 children come five days a week. Most teachers work four days, some three. One, Mary Chisham, takes pride in doing without daycare: she has her son Fridays, her husband, a car salesman, Mondays, and the other three days the grandparents are in charge.
“Three days is the maximum a child should spend in daycare,” she said, a view echoed in dozens of interviews with women and men.
The Netherlands may be famously liberal — marijuana is tolerated and prostitutes can join a union — but traditional gender stereotypes are strong, and for years, a labor code that empowered employees to reduce their hours has reinforced them by encouraging women to take time off during their child-bearing years.
At 70 percent, Dutch female employment is high — but Dutch women work on average no more than 24 hours a week. They earn 27 percent less than men and 57 percent are considered financially dependent, earning less than 70 percent of the gross minimum wage, or €997 a month — the equivalent of $1,300. Only four of 20 members of the current cabinet are female and 60 percent of the companies listed on the Amsterdam Euronext have no women on their boards.
According to Ellen de Bruin, the author of “Why Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed,” Dutch women don’t seem to mind too much. She notes that 96 percent of Dutch part timers tell pollsters they do not want to work more; the Netherlands is that rare country where — even taking housework and child care into account — women work less than men.
A 2006 study showed that only 16 percent of Dutch urban women aim to reach the top and just 10 percent would sacrifice family time for a career. “We always rank low in the gender equality rankings,” said Ms. de Bruin, a journalist, “ but we rank high on happiness.”
“Spoiled princesses” is what commentator Elma Drayer calls her Dutch sisters: “Women should behave like grownups, men do it, too. At least they should be financially independent.”
More and more Dutch companies promote flexible work hours. In Tilburg, near the Belgian border, Radboud van Hal leads talent recruitment at Achmea, the largest Dutch insurance company. He has breakfast and dinner with his family, and plays soccer on Wednesday afternoons. He still works a 40-hour week.
“I work from home in the mornings and travel to work when the roads are clear,” he said. At his 19-story office building, employees have smart phones, laptops and lockers but no designated desk. The present seven work spaces for every 10 staff members will drop to six next year.
Indeed, working flexibly does not always mean working less. At Dutch Microsoft headquarters in Schiphol, Ineke Hoekman, head of human resources and mother of two, used to work part time. But in 2008, when the company moved into a space without designated work stations and employees were told to work “anywhere, any time,” she gradually went back to full time. Her team lives with Friday conference calls from her son’s soccer practice.
Aspects of this “new world of work” concept have been exported to other Microsoft offices, including Norway, France and Australia — though not yet to U.S. headquarters — but the flexibility remains broadest in the Netherlands.
Ninety-five percent of Dutch Microsoft employees work from home at least one day a week; a full quarter do so four out of five days. Each team has a “physical minimum;” some meet twice a week in the office, others once a quarter. Online communication and conference calls save time, fuel and paper waste. The company says it has cut its carbon footprint by 900 tons this year.
Even in the Netherlands, this remains the exception — but it is gaining ground. In a 24-hour world, flexibility and job sharing are inevitable, said Martijn de Wildt, chief executive of the human resource consultancy Qidos.
“Part time is an obsolete concept,” he said. “But so is full time.”