Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

The Future of Work

Is Amazon's 30-Hour Workweek Program Good For Workers?

Amazon's pilot part-time-with-full-benefits project aims to correct eroding work-life balance. But staff may not gain much.

Is Amazon's 30-Hour Workweek Program Good For Workers?

[Photo: Flickr user ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓]

Amazon announced last week that it’s testing out a 30-hour workweek for "a few dozen" employees on some of its technical teams. Those employees, the Washington Post reports, will keep all the same benefits as full-time staff but earn 75% of the pay (Amazon already employs part-time workers with full benefits). Every member on those teams, including managers, will work 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with the remaining time on the clock made up of flex hours, and they’ll have the option to become full-time if they wish.

According to the Post (which is owned by Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos), Amazon sees the move as a response to rising demand for more flexible hours. Arrangements like this one come with a mix of pros and cons—not just for the organization—but for workers, too.

What Amazon Gets

Like the smattering of tech companies expanding their benefits lately, Amazon is in a tight race for top-shelf talent. So it didn't help when a New York Times report in August 2015 slammed Amazon’s culture as a sort of office-bound Hunger Games.

The company sharply rejected that characterization, and three months later it unveiled a more generous parental leave policy, putting it in league with Netflix, Adobe, and others that have recently done the same. Its 30-hour workweek program could help keep Amazon appealing to the most in-demand job candidates.

The Post reports that "team members will be hired from inside and outside the company," but it's unclear whether that means a net increase to Amazon's headcount in order to make up any shortfall in overall productivity.

While the initiative may be part of Amazon’s continuing reputation rehab as an employer, it’s also a recognition that recruiting is still a local game, says Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel. "Seattle has become a new epicenter for the talent wars (like Silicon Valley before it), with Facebook and other companies opening up big offices that compete there for talent against Microsoft, Amazon, and other Seattle incumbents," he tells Fast Company. "This, in turn, puts more pressure on these incumbents to come up with creative ways to retain and motivate top talent."

The rise of remote work tools and platforms theoretically lets companies hire people based anywhere, but according to Kasriel, geography still matters. "There might be millions of relevant professionals in the world, but restricting to local commute radiuses and to people available for 40-plus–hour-a-week, in-person roles narrows the available pool down drastically," he says. Amazon’s new initiative may help counterbalance that.

What Workers Get

Tech companies aren’t just competing with each other, though—they’re also competing with freelancing. Intuit has estimated that 40% of the U.S. workforce will be made up of freelancers by 2020, and the top five industries for freelancers that FlexJobs recently ranked are all areas crucial to Amazon's business:

  1. Computer and IT
  2. Administrative
  3. Accounting and finance
  4. Customer service
  5. Software development

Kasriel points to a survey Upwork undertook last year with the Freelancers Union, where 75% of full-time and 68% of part-time independent workers said they chose to freelance because of the scheduling flexibility it allowed them. And according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of the more than 151 million Americans who were employed in August 2016, over 20.5 million (or 13.5%) were working part-time jobs "for noneconomic reasons."

Some in the tech world, including Kasriel, believe the knowledge economy is well on its way to becoming gig-ified, and that this can be a net gain for workers. After all, many have already expressed a desire (both in surveys and by voting with their feet) for more control over their work, even if that means more tenuous, temporary, or nonexistent relationships with traditional employers.

Although plenty of tech workers may jump at the chance to replace a chunk of their full-time jobs with their own side gigs, Amazon's offer may not be the ideal solution. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, sees it as a form of "disenfranchisement of the labor force." The 30-hour workweek pilot, in his view, is "exactly one-half of the necessary move. Yes, reduce the workweek, but you don't have to reduce the pay proportionately, or at all."

Amazon isn’t reducing 30-hour-a-week workers’ benefits, so it isn’t exactly saving money on them. If anything, those workers will be slightly pricier—just as long as they aren’t expected to be any more productive, on average, than full-time staff.

This is where Rushkoff is skeptical. Cutting back time on the clock, he believes, makes the most sense as an incentive for greater efficiency. That’s largely been the rationale behind some six-hour workday experiments in recent years, where reduced hours are meant to incentivize efficiency.

"The employee who gets five days of work done in four days shouldn't be punished for this, but rewarded," Rushkoff argues. "But that only works if management sees its employees as part of its company . . . You don’t have to take the money away from them and deliver it to the shareholders," he says.

In other words, Rushkoff's view is that any company that offers a scaled-back schedule in exchange for proportionately less pay is effectively asking its most productive employees to purchase that freedom, then to make up the income shortfall on their own. To some workers, that opportunity is a perk in its own right, one they've been clamoring for, and that Amazon is finally delivering. To others, it may be a ticket for more career self-determination, sold at too high a price.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival