Amazon tries out 30-hour workweek, managers included

But is pilot just an employer-friendly initiative?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/18/2016

Once again making waves, Amazon recently revealed it will be experimenting with a 30-hour workweek for a select group of employees in the United States. The program will see technical teams made up entirely of part-time workers. They will be salaried and receive the same benefits as traditional 40-hour workers but be given 75 per cent of full-time pay.

“We want to create a work environment that is tailored to a reduced schedule and still fosters success and career growth,” said a posting by the company on Eventbrite.com, according to the Washington Post.

“This initiative was created with Amazon’s diverse workforce in mind and the realization that the traditional full-time schedule may not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model.”

While acknowledging it as a public relations exercise, Isik Zeytinoglu said she thinks the initiative will be a success.

“It’s good for the company and also good for a group of workers who are interested in working 30 hours per week, who will also get full benefits… so it’s a win-win situation for both,” said Zeytinoglu, professor of management and industrial relations at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “It will give the impression Amazon is doing something great, that it’s a great place to work in, so it’s a good advertisement.”

The workers have also been told they can move on to full-time positions if they are interested, she said, and it’s possible some individuals will also pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.

“They will have 10 hours or more in the week to perhaps focus on their other interests.”

Whether other companies follow suit is unknown, said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York, but Amazon is addressing a challenge HR has faced: How to have part-time and full-time workers at one workplace.

“They’ve struggled with it being against the norm,” she said. “It’s a very small experiment but it’s addressing a big problem.”

As to why Amazon is making the move, Galinsky said it doesn’t really matter.

“I don’t really care why companies do things that are innovative. If they do them well, and if they serve as an example for other companies to help them think outside of the box… if it’s something that benefits their own employees, more power to them.”

A cynic might say Amazon is just trying to save money by reducing the size of its labour envelope, said Gordon Cooke, associate professor at the Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University in St. John’s, but the fact that it’s doing a pilot study and giving workers a choice sounds employee-friendly, especially in the tech sector with its retention and burnout issues.

“These are skilled workers, workers that are valued and are mobile; they have other employment prospects, they’re the privileged workers of our labour market, they have power and options because of their skills. In that scenario, the balance of power shifts to workers and so employers have to offer employee-friendly policies… to keep them happy and motivated,” he said.

It could also mean the workers are more focused during those 30 hours, so people with young kids, eldercare issues or outside interests “might be able to zone in on their to-do list for 30 hours, and they’re delighted — they see this as simplification, better work-life balance, so the lower pay is more than offset by the quality-of-life improvement,” said Cooke.

“If an organization stops and says, ‘We want to be worker-friendly, family-friendly, we want to be empathetic and compassionate,’ then they really will try and reduce the hours, even for salaried (workers).”

Structure key

But some might be skeptical that the part-time workers end up working longer than 30 hours, said Cooke.

“They actually have to mean it — 30 has to mean 30. And what happens if there’s a rush, what are the exceptions?”

And in this kind of situation, you want to make sure no one was forced to take a part-time position, he said.

“Some people have their mortgage based on 40 (hours per week), let’s face it. So will anyone be forced and what happens when extra hours are needed? Will they really do what has been hinted, meaning that this will lead to more people… instead of hiring three people at 40, will they hire four at 30? If they do that, then they deserve our admiration,” said Cooke, adding the other issue is whether Amazon will try to ensure people expected to work 40 hours really do.

“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for any organization that has one group of workers on 30 hours and another group on 40 hours... If Amazon can get the ones paid 40 hours to work 40 — not 47, that is the first hurdle that has to fall if they want the 30-hour crowd to be viewed as full members.”

It appears the part-timers have a set schedule, working between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., said Galinsky, “so they’re avoiding the usual pitfalls in part-time work.”

But the devil will be in the details, she said.

“It’s one thing in a company to have a policy, but it’s a whole other thing to have a culture that supports it, and we find that the culture that supports it is even more powerful than the policy.”

Amazon should clearly state when these part-time employees will be available so others at the company don’t demand additional hours or additional work, said Zeytinoglu.

“Managers should be clearly informed of the expectation; as well, they should be clearly informed that they cannot put demands on individuals as if they are working 40 hours.”

Against the grain

Part-time work or “reduced hours” is often seen as a deficit, as if it’s “a part of the whole,” said Galinsky.

“The norm is full-time and part-time is the deviation, so what companies have struggled with a long time is for those people who are working part-time, there’s this full-time creep that happens, you get paid for part-time but you end up working more and more because you’re working against the norm in your work group or division… and so I’ve heard companies for a long time want to normalize part-time work and what Amazon has done in a fairly small experiment is to normalize it, with managers, by setting the hours of part-time, so it’s going against the grain,” she said.

“Obviously, they’re doing it because they want particular talent and I think it’ll reach a wider talent group if they offer this as an option.”

Some may feel part-timers aren’t as ambitious as full-timers, but that’s not necessarily true, said Galinsky.

“People who are working part-time are often working part-time for important reasons — they may be going to school, they may have eldercare issues… or a very demanding job and they need to be the ballast for that… so it doesn’t mean that you’re not ambitious.”

Employees who put in fewer hours compared to others might be perceived as less motivated, said Zeytinoglu.

“I don’t think that’s the case. Individuals sometimes, at certain stages of their lives, would like to reflect on what’s important in their life, so it’s quite possible, looking at this technical team, these individuals who will be taking a 30-hour week might be setting up their own business on the side… or they might be relatively older workers and they have other conflicting demands in their lives, a teenager or older adult children, plus elderly parents or elderly relatives,” she said.

“They might be younger workers who like to be in the workforce but maybe they have young children.”

Ideally, Amazon and its managers should allow these people to move in and out of the positions, she said.

“They should be looking at these individuals and always considering them for promotion, so more hours, a higher responsibility position… and it should be up to these individuals to decide if they will take that challenge.”

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