Amazon's wacky workweek hours experiment

Amazon's rationale — there are people who want to work fewer hours at a price of lower pay — is old-fashioned

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Amazon has never shied away from an experiment and, indeed, many of Amazon's nontraditional business processes are now SOP for everyone else. Therefore, its experiments are worth watching. A new one surfaced this week, an effort to offer 30-hour workweeks "for select employees."

As described by The Washington Post, "the program will have a few technical teams made up entirely of part-time workers. These 30-hour employees will be salaried and receive the same benefits as traditional 40-hour workers, but they will receive only 75 percent of the pay full-time workers earn. Currently, the company employs part-time workers that share the same benefits as full-time workers. However, the pilot program would differ in that an entire team, including managers, would work reduced hours. Currently, the pilot program will be small, consisting of a few dozen people. These teams will work on tech products within the human resources division of the company, working Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with additional flex hours."

Amazon's rationale is that there are people who want to work fewer hours at a price of lower pay. But that view of a workweek is decidedly quaint and old-fashioned, which are not attributes that I would use to describe Amazon.

The idea of tying workweeks to hours labored — rather than focusing on the number of ideas crafted, things created or processes completed — is wacky. Wackier still is that the story says this was a response to Amazon's reputation of people working monstrously huge numbers of hours. Those two issues have almost nothing in common.

The cause of the 80-hour-workweeks with no vacation was not a policy or a schedule. It was solely a matter of unwritten expectations and company culture.

That said, both issues — the shortened workweek and the elongated week by tradition and via social norms — do suffer from one identical root problem. Both emphasize time logged at a desk and de-emphasize what is done while at that desk.

I have no intention of using the phrase that is routinely mocked ("work smarter, not harder"), but a focus on productivity is a far better means of incentive. If you have some smart and organized employees who can complete their assigned tasks in 30 hours instead of 40, why would you want to punish them with smaller salaries?

When I first saw the 30-hour workweek experiment from Amazon, I thought it was great. "Finally, a program that rewards people who can truly complete their work faster." Then I saw the "75 percent of full-time pay" reference and my enthusiasm evaporated.

This is the same school of work that gave us the most misleading concept ever mentioned in a boardroom: unlimited vacations. Vacations are expensive to a company, and they are supposed to be. It's an expensive perk. The way it should be done is that there is money allocated to cover an employee while on vacation, either via paying temps or freelancers — or even having just a few more salaried employees than you need so that there's enough work-hours leeway to cover the periodic vacation.

A colleague of mine from publishing years ago had a wise observation. She said that our employer at the time didn't actually give vacations. Instead, she argued, it merely gave comp time. How is that true? I asked. "For me to take one week of vacation, I have to work a ton of extra hours beforehand to get ahead of deliverables. And then, when I come back from vacation, I have to put in a lot more extra hours to dig out from everything left on my desk/in my inbox during vacation. When all is said and done, I put in 40 extra unpaid hours to get that one week of paid vacation. Therefore, it's comp time."

She was right. An employee should work their normal week, and the company should pay someone else to do their job while they are gone.

Unlimited vacation is done with the caveat that you can do it, as long as no one misses you. Thanks, employer, but that would be the case anyway.

That all said, this speaks to professional employees. There certainly are employees who truly do have to log hours at their desks, such as customer service employees. For those positions, this reduced hours/reduced money program might make sense.

But the talent Amazon needs to recruit extra hard are IT, security and marketing. How about a program for them that rewards people who can do more high-quality work in less time?

The other element here are corporate expectations. One of the jokes among many corporate employees is that the company will declare that this is what you need to do in 40 hours. Typically, it's work that realistically needs 60 to 70 hours to complete. HR should insist on reasonable workloads. Here is a case where majority should rule. HR should review all employees over an x-month period and conclude what is a reasonable output for 40 hours. Management must not seek more than that.

That was actually Amazon's reputational problem. It was demanding amounts of work that couldn't be done in fewer than 80 hours.

Shortened workweeks are fine ideas, but they need to focus on what is done during that time — rather than the time itself.

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