At a time when evidence shows employers are offering less flextime despite a robust economy and strong job growth, online retailer Amazon announced on Aug. 25 a pilot program where certain teams will be made up of only part-time employees.
Amazon is testing a program it calls the Part-Time Team Initiative that allows entire employee teams to work 30-hour weeks for 75 percent of their salary and full benefits.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, calls the concept groundbreaking.
Billed in the online announcement as "Reinventing the Work-Life Ratio for Tech Talent," Amazon's 30-hour initiative is intended, the company said, to recruit and retain skilled technology employees and to diversify the firm's workforce.
"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," the company said in its announcement.
Program Targets Entire Teams
Some Amazon employees already work a 30-hour week. The difference with this pilot program is that entire teams, including managers, are part-time employees. The company wants these teams to include both new hires and current employees. The latter must apply to transfer from their current positions to one of the three teams being formed under the initiative.
So far, a few dozen Amazon engineering and tech staff are taking part in the pilot program and will work 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with additional flextime hours throughout the week.
"Amazon's focus has always been listening to customers. The company has an empty chair at every meeting to represent the customer, so they may be considering the employee as their customer in this endeavor," Galinsky said. "It really is cutting-edge."
Amazon is not changing its scheduling structure companywide. An Amazon spokesman made it clear that the pilot program is strictly a learning experience to determine if these types of teams can work.
Under the Amazon initiative, "it will be possible to monitor the productivity of the employees to see whether they are getting more productive per hour when they work 30 hours vs. 40 hours," said K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and an expert on the psychological nature of work and human performance. "How will they feel when they come to work and when they leave work?"
Team Approach Designed to Reduce Friction
While other major companies have discussed similar work arrangements, Galinsky said, she knows of none with a program like Amazon's.
"In most part-time flex schedules, the part-timers work side by side with full-timers, and so sometimes friction occurs," Galinsky said. "In this case, everyone [on a team] is a part-timer, and they're there by choice."
"I think that there might be some people with other responsibilities [outside work] that would [make them want] to work 30 hours, such as taking care of children or older parents," Ericsson said. "It will be interesting to see how many of the existing workforce select the 30-hours option as well as the number of new applicants only being interested in the 30-hours option."
Part-time and flexible schedules aren't always popular.
Companies often cut costs by trimming employee hours so that they can avoid paying benefits or overtime, Galinsky said. She also noted that one downside of part-time work is what she calls "part-time creep," where workers are paid for part-time work but end up working full time for various reasons—without full-time benefits and with growing resentment.
Amazon's announcement comes a year after The New York Times published a story portraying Amazon as a highly competitive, unforgiving place where grueling work schedules were the norm. Amazon disputed the story, saying details about the company's true work environment were ignored.
Swedish Experiments Had Mixed Results
While the announcement is groundbreaking for a company as large as Amazon, small businesses and local governments in Sweden have experimented with shorter workweeks for several years, with mixed results.
Sweden's national quest for work/life balance is rooted in the belief that treating workers well is good for the bottom line.
In the Swedish port city of Gothenburg, employees of a nursing home have been working 30-hour weeks for more than a year, logging six-hour days instead of eight—and for the same wages. An April government audit of the program found that it sharply reduced absenteeism and improved productivity and worker health, according to news reports.
Yet other experiments with 30-hour weeks haven't fared as well. The northern Swedish city of Kiruna ended its six-hour-day policy for 250 municipal employees after 16 years, citing high expenses and resentment from workers not included in the program.
Lisa Petrillo is a freelance writer based in San Diego.