Some economics of zero hours contracts – part 4: team production as a constraint on working time flexibility

To continue with my theme in my previous three blogs that zero hours contracts aren’t supposed to exist, a leading explanation for the hesitancy of employers to agree to part-time hours is team production (Hutchens and Grace-Martin 2004, 2006; Hutchens 2010).

Employers may want their employees to work a minimum number of working hours because of rigid production technologies and/or team production. Production technologies vary in the rigidity they impose on the hours worked by employees.

The co-ordination of working times is paramount to effective team production. Once the work time schedule is fixed for team, the worker faces a choice between working at the fixed schedule or working in another team or job.

Two common examples of teams are an assembly line and a football team. Both require a minimum number of workers with rigid starting and finishing times. The absence of a team member could reduce team productivity or safety or even stop production entirely.

When the cost of absence is higher such as for team production, there are more efforts to reduce absences. When a single employee absence is costly to employers, employers take steps to ensure that a minimum number of workers plus a reserve are present. There will be increased spending on monitoring, more cross-training, mutual monitoring by employees and the use of peer pressure. Multiple production lines reduce the risks of absence because spare staff can be hired to fill in across different teams.

Other workers can produce independently of their co-workers. One example is a member of a typing pool. The contribution of each typist depends on their efforts alone. The increment they add to production does not vary with the presence or absence of others, nor is the productivity of others affected by their output. If there is little teamwork, the absence of a worker does not affect other workers.

The Department of Labour (2009) found that about 60 per cent of New Zealand full-time employees did not have flexible hours.

A leading reason for employers hiring part-time workers is to solve scheduling problems that arise when hours of operation and peak periods of daily or weekly production do not easily divide into standard shift lengths.

For example, within the day and within the week variation in customer demand explains the heavy use of part-timers in restaurants, retails stores and many services outlets. Not surprisingly, zero hours contracts arise in industries such as the food services sector where there is already a long history of part-time work.

Different production technologies require their own levels of coordination and supervision. This complicates the use of part-timers. Scheduling problems can arise of workers arrive at different times.

A mix of full and part-time employees could increase supervision costs. There can be repetitions of instructions and different capabilities to perform the same tasks.

Two part-timers could be productive if job is repetitive and does not require much co-ordination. Again, and not surprisingly, zero hours contracts occur in industries where the jobs appear to be relatively simple and the worker can pretty much work out what to do after a little bit of training with little supervision.

A managerial employee is less likely to be allowed to be part-time because they will be absent when employees need direction (Hutchens and Grace-Martin 2004, 2006. Managerial employees have scale effects. Higher level management decisions percolate through the rest of the organisation. The interaction of talent and scale ensures that the impact of any loss of efficiency from having part-time managers compound geometrically into the efforts and productivity of those they lead. Sharing a managerial job has costs because information must be exchanged and a common agenda agreed.

The economics of team production suggests that zero hours contracts will occur in teams with peaks and ebbs in customer demand, where workers are pretty much interchangeable alone can take over with little or no instructional briefing, and the level of task dependency between workers is small.

When extra workers on zero hours contracts are brought on to deal with the spike in demand, they take over the servicing of this demand. There is little need for them to interact with existing workers. For example, in a restaurant situation, they could deal with the extra tables filled by the spike in demand. In a McDonald’s restaurant, for example, they could just take over that the till that was otherwise not in use and serve the extra queues of customers.

To summarise, unless we have a good idea about why firms are moving to zero hours contracts, which we don’t, and why employees sign these contracts rather than work for other employers who offer more regular hours of work, meddling in these still novel arrangements is pretty risky.


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