News that Amazon is experimenting with a 30 hour work week has been greeted in various corners of the internet with either a cheer of celebration. Widely seen (though not officially acknowledged) as a way to help clean up the company’s image and improve company culture after a less-than-flattering article in the New York Times portraying the work environment as nothing less than toxic, the new 30 hour week is being rolled out in certain teams to see how it fares.
Some have praised this as a move that will benefit women in particular, especially working mothers who can use the flexibility. This blog in Forbes also sings the praises of the idea from the Millennial perspective, who the author writes can take advantage of the flexible time to go back to school or run side hustles to increase income.
What Amazon’s New 30-Hour Work Week Means For Millennials
Recently I saw Lesley Jane Seymour’s LinkedIn article, “Why we’re in trouble if only women sign up for Amazon’s 30-hour work week”. She unfolded criticism for the program, centered primarily around the tension between working moms and every other group in an organization. While I commend her for raising the flag […]
While this rose-colored glasses view of the 30 hour work week is attractive, I can’t help but point out that this experiment is likely to fail. Not because it is likely a PR move which will simply be forgotten as soon as the media cycle spins another round, but because of the reality of the working world. In any organization, most especially one with a hyper-competitive culture as Amazon is associated with after the NYT article, rolling out an experiment like this has some major flaws.
One major factor is that there are only a few teams who will get to participate in this experiment, and from my readings even within the teams participation is voluntary. Does anyone honestly believe that when offered the 30 hour work week, an employee would feel completely comfortable accepting it if there are A) Competitive teams who will not receive the offer and will thus be working longer and B) Possibly teammates who will not participate in the program?
Remember, Amazon is reportedly a dog-eat-dog, hyper-competitive environment. If an employee wanted to take the offer, will they feel free to take it knowing that competitors in the workplace will use it as an opportunity to get ahead themselves and portray those who take the offer as less dedicated or less loyal to the company? Some might…but I can guarantee you that in the messy world of organizational politics, many more will not feel they have the freedom to accept the offer even if they wanted to without risking their jobs. It doesn’t matter how many times management reassures the employees that those who took advantage of the offer will not be disadvantaged at work; culture cannot be dictated from the top down.
I personally love the idea of flexible hours; it allows employees to navigate the demands both of having a career and having obligations outside of it. Technology has made it possible to work from anywhere on the planet, so long as you have either a cell phone signal or an internet connection in most positions. But to better allow flexible hours, we need to un-couple the concept of salaries, benefits and hours worked.
Back in the Industrial Age it made sense to tie compensation to hours worked, because the work was manual in nature, repetitive and could only be performed at the factory or at the office. But we are in the Knowledge Economy now, where work can be performed anywhere at any time and does not necessarily include a manual component. Compensation should be adjusted away from an hours worked model to a model based more on effectiveness or performance. If two employees can perform the same task, but it takes one thirty hours and the other forty, is there a reason the employee who accomplished it in thirty needs to sit in the office for an additional ten hours? And is there a reason to change compensation for either of the employees? After all, they both effectively performed their job duties, which is the standard by which they should be measured.
If anything, tying compensation more towards performance than time spent on the task can help close the productivity and engagement gap. Employees who knew that they could leave the office early if they finished early would be intrinsically motivated to increase productivity. I won’t deny that determining how to tie compensation to performance and what measures to use will be a challenge. But it will be far more realistic than our outdated hours-your-rear-is-in-the-office approach.
This perspective may be controversial, but sometimes it is better to throw out a system and start from scratch than it is to try and change it in incremental fashion.