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WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Would Amazons 30-Hour-


Week Experiment Work in
Your Company?
by Scott Behson
SEPTEMBER 26, 2016

MARION BARRAUD FOR HBR

A friend of mine was having a hard time balancing her career at a large financial firm with her family
demands. She worked at one of those all-too-typical workplaces where employees are expected to log
60 hours or so a week a perfect illustration of what I call a culture of overwork.

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She told me she was going to take the part-time work option her employer had offered. She would
work about 30 hours a week at reduced salary, and would get to keep her benefits. To her, this
sounded like a good solution.

However, I counseled her that, in my experience, these part-time arrangements hardly ever work out
well for employees. First, she would be outing herself as an involved parent, which in many toxic
overwork cultures is code for not dedicated enough to have a good career here. Second, because all
her coworkers and supervisors would continue with their 60-hour weeks, she would face subtle (and
not-so-subtle) pressure to increase her workload.

I hate to say I told you so, but I told her so.

She wound up averaging 4550 hour weeks, which is no ones definition of part-time, and not much
less than she was working before. But she was making a lower salary and was now marked as a lesser
employee, despite her continued high performance.

It didnt take her long to see her arrangement as a dead end. She hit the job market and changed
employers to one with a genuine commitment to employee well-being. Shes now more successful
both at work and at home.

With her story fresh in my mind, I was skeptical when I first heard that Amazon would begin offering
a 30-hour workweek option. Part-time professional arrangements hardly ever work out, especially in
a work environment as intense as Amazons. My friend was living proof.

But after learning more about how Amazon is structuring its program, I am more optimistic. I think
this experiment can work, benefiting Amazon and its employees. And this experiment, if successful,
could have positive spillover effects for other employees at other workplaces.

Heres how the plan works. Amazon is launching a handful of technical units in which everyone will
work 30 hours a week. That means all employees in these units, including supervisors. Everyone gets
75% of typical pay and full benefits. To me, having intact units work the same reduced schedule
seems to be a smarter strategy than having a few 30-hour employees mixed in with more-than-full-
time employees.

Because of this, Amazon may avoid many of the obstacles working parents face in their pursuit of
success at work and at home. It is well documented that, like my friend, employees who work formal
alternate schedules tend to be stigmatized. But if everyone is working an alternate schedule, that
stigma should go away. Moreover, because all employees in Amazons units will be held to the same
expectations, they should avoid the gradual work-hour creep that my friend experienced. There
should be less informal competition among employees to curry favor with their bosses by putting in
extra (but often inefficient) hours or giving off the appearance of heroic work schedules.

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Amazon itself may also stand to benefit. This arrangement can help it attract and retain great
employees who otherwise wouldnt seek employment there or stay long-term. Considering
Amazons reputation as an intense workplace, those who are concerned with work-life balance may
never have considered working for it. Now they might. Reduced schedules may also be a way to hold
on to current employees balancing work and family who would move on. This could reduce the costs
associated with turnover.

Finally, Amazon is nothing if not data-driven. This experiment could lead to further
experimentation, and perhaps the realization that long hours dont correlate with high performance.
If the experiment is successful, arrangements like these could help reshape Amazons workplace
culture by sending a clear signal that performance is more important than face time.

There are some risks, however. Culture change is hard, and it is possible that traditionally managed
units will resent the new ones, reducing cooperation and increasing internal rivalry. Other Amazon
employees may see this experiment as a step down a slippery slope in which all employees are
restricted in their work hours (and in their salaries). And, of course, wherever there are driven
people, the potential for hours creep still exists, no matter the work expectations.

Finally, it must be noted that Amazon does not currently have a reputation as a caring employer.
There have been multiple high-profile reports of its high-pressure culture and callous treatment of
employees. Perhaps this experiment is simply a ploy to change the narrative and generate positive
publicity.

Regardless of the merits and potential obstacles, Amazons 30-hour work arrangement can help us
think through this issue at our own workplaces. Heres some advice for managers and employees to
make the most out of reduced-hours arrangements:

For the employee:

Provide clarity as to whether you are agreeing to a temporary or long-term reduction. A reduced
schedule for a few months to care for an ill family member, for example will have different
implications than a permanent arrangement.
Understand the potential trade-offs a reduced schedule may have for your ongoing career
trajectory. In some workplaces, a reduced schedule can be a career killer. In others, it will be seen
much more favorably. The consequences will vary based on employer culture, work unit norms,
and supervisory attitudes.
Set clear boundaries with your manager, coworkers, and clients on what constitutes a reasonable
workload for your reduced schedule. Set up check-in meetings with your supervisor to discuss how
the arrangement is going and to determine whether hours creep is starting to occur.
Create a plan on whether and how coworkers and others can reach you outside of your 30 hours. It
may be best to have firm boundaries. In other cases, after-hours access may be mutually beneficial.
Talk this plan through with affected parties.

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Keep track of your performance and document your accomplishments. These may be useful if
others underestimate your contributions.

For the manager:

Examine your motives for agreeing to this arrangement. Do you see this as a positive way to
support a valued employee and enable them to stay with you long-term? Or are you grudgingly
going along? Your answer to this will be instructive for whether and how you should proceed.
Maybe increased flexibility is a better solution for a particular employee situation.
Monitor the workloads of all your employees to reduce chronic overwork and to abide by the terms
of reduced schedules.
Be up front and clear on your expectations. Check in often to ensure the arrangement is working
well for everyone.
Keep an ear out for grumbling or dissatisfaction among full-hours employees.
When it comes time for performance evaluation, make an extra effort to focus on performance
relative to goals, as opposed to overemphasizing long work hours as a proxy for performance.

It will be interesting to see how Amazons experiment unfolds. If its full-unit 30-hour arrangement
proves successful, it is likely that other firms will start adopting similar policies. This could mean
better employment options for working parents. More broadly, it can also lead to an increased
recognition that everyones priorities are different, and that there should be more than one path for
career and life success.

Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the author of The Working Dads
Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home. He writes about work and family issues for Time, WSJ, the
Huffington Post and his blog, Fathers, Work and Family. A national expert in work-family issues, Scott was a featured
speaker at the White House Summit for Working Families. Follow him on Twitter @ScottBehson.

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