30 hour work week: Why Amazon needs courage to implement findings from its pilot

Research shows that employees with the highest productivity work less than 8 hours a day.
30 hour work week: Why Amazon needs courage to implement findings from its pilot
30 hour work week: Why Amazon needs courage to implement findings from its pilot
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By Archana Venkat

I am not an HR or an operations professional to dissect Amazon’s decision to introduce a 30-hour work week pilot scheme for select employees - 10:00 am to 2:00 pm from Monday to Thursday and additional hours to be put in as per one’s convenience. I write this as a professional with over 10 years of experience across various industries doing different roles – mostly creative or at least those involving 70% ideation.  

A 30 hour-work week is a bold experiment. Bold, because chances are Amazon will see exponential growth in efficiency and employees may want to make 30 hours the new normal (a 40 hour work week is considered normal for most organizations, at least on paper, in India). This is why I think so.

1.The 8 hour work day wasn’t scientific in the first place: The origins of the 8 hour work day were in response to the changing customer needs during the industrial revolution. From being farmers who worked as long as daylight existed (around 12-14 hours), the onset of machines reduced working time to 8 hours so as to be conducive to the factory ecosystem. A century since the 8 hour working day concept was implemented, we have 4-5 times as much automation in business. By that logic, we should be able to complete the same tasks at a fraction of the time they took (perhaps in about 2-3 hours). But no, in our quest to be seen as indispensable, organizations and individuals have routinely attempted to spend way more time in the office than what matters and take on more tasks.

2.We believe we are more important than we really are: As a marketer, I have had several cringe-worthy discussions where people insist their products, services or themselves are so important that the world wouldn’t be what it is without them. Give the bullhorn a rest please. While I agree that many companies have made a difference to our lives, the only services that are truly important for the survival of most human beings are the emergency services– those responsible for ensuring public safety and saving human lives, such as hospitals, law enforcement etc. Sitting in office for 8+ hours and banging the keyboard may give some of us a sense of purpose and meaning, but making that your life’s motto will only result in Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. And Amazon delivering a product in 2 days, as opposed to 3 (or vice versa) may not change the world for us on most occasions.

3.Quality and quantity don’t often go hand in hand: Remember the story of the boy who spent 20 minutes sharpening his axe to cut down the tree in 10 minutes, versus others who went hammer and tongs at the tree for the entire 30 minutes? New research shows that the most productive employees in a company don’t even work 8 hours a day. Their secret – taking regular breaks or working for shorter periods of time overall. My experience indicates the same. While I understand this may not work for highly operations driven roles at junior levels, what stops senior management from creating an alternate work system for those in other roles? After all, aren’t we concerned about outcomes?

4.Clients/ Management won’t agree: This is the most common answer I’ve heard every time I had new ideas. I want to share an analogy that helps illustrate how irrational this argument can be. Like many people in Bengaluru, I recently started buying organic milk after extensively researching about the said company and its best practices of managing cows. The company’s rationale was – a well-rested, healthy eating cow was a happy cow. And happy cows gave better quality milk than harassed cows who are force-fed and living in miserable conditions. There may be scientific data to prove this, but at my end I don’t see any difference in the product compared to non-organic milk, although I pay twice as much for a litre. We continue to have the odd case of cold-cough and flu in the house. I have therefore concluded that I buy organic milk for its philosophy and my affordability more than anything else. Seeing the roaring business organic milk companies are doing in Bengaluru, I am assuming there are several people like me.

I am therefore not sure why clients should hesitate to pay for healthy, well rested and attentive employees on the job. I’d prefer being spoken to nicely by a call center employee who is knowledgeable and can solve my problem as opposed to one who picks up my call in 2 seconds, rambles on and puts me on hold every 10 seconds thereafter, only to assign a ticket and let me know that someone else will handle my complaint. (This may be a sweeping statement but why do you need so many call center folks? Unless of course, you have a less than ideal product created and sold by unhappy employees?)

5.The extra time doesn’t justify the salary: In every organization I have worked for, I have seen flexi-time options. Sadly, these also came attached with the flexi-pay tag. I was once told by the HR that since I wasn’t in office for 2 out of 8 hours, I would be paid a pro-rated salary for the 6 hour work day. Thankfully my then boss intervened and put his foot down. But no one has ever told me I will get a pro-rated salary for working beyond 8 hours a day. That, to me would be fair practice. I believe, if people didn’t have pay restrictions and worked lesser hours, they would do a much better job in response to the consideration shown by the employer. Why would I put in extra time for the same salary I received?

In most countries, the minimum hourly wage rate fixed is a mere indicator of what you should pay people. However, market forces, and the candidate’s reputation for effectiveness, is what tend to determine salaries in most cases. Why then do organizations want to regulate pay based on hours across all levels of employment?

I will be keenly following Amazon’s experiences through this pilot that they have embarked on. But will Amazon have the courage to implement this new normal if they see positive results? I am not sure. 

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