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Amazon’s Part-time Experiment

In a bold and innovative move this week, Amazon announced they are piloting a new initiative to build teams staffed with part-time workers. With increasing demand for technical workers and Amazon’s long hours culture, this might help Amazon lure people who otherwise wouldn’t consider working at Amazon, for example families with young children.

In this pilot, Amazon will build project teams completely staffed with part-time workers.  These workers will have core hours of 10-2pm every day and flex hours outside that. Amazon haven’t released more details about what sort of projects these teams will work on. Will they work on strategic projects on core Amazon websites? Or side projects that are less important and strategic?

Amazon says that these employees will have “core hours”. This means hours they’re expected to be available so colleagues can work with them.

A cynical view of core hours is that this is a way to lure employees to Amazon.

And have them end up working near full-time hours as the aggressive culture demands results. The same argument has been made against unlimited vacation offered by some companies.

I’ve got a lot of experience working with remote teams in different time zones. Despite having “core hours” that respect different time zones, over time those “core hours” get expanded as first one, then two then many meetings get scheduled at inconvenient times “just this once”. This idea of core hours needs to be vigorously upheld so that the benefit of part-time work to employees remains.

Assuming core hours can be respected, I applaud this move by Amazon. Anything that helps parents get balance having a job and being present for their family is a good thing. Time will tell if this pilot will work out or not. For me, Amazon haven’t gone far enough because we’re all trapped in the assumption that there have to be 5 days in the working week.

The 5-Day Workweek

The origins of the 5-day workweek aren’t completely clear. The Atlantic says that it was a concession to Jewish workers in a New England mill in 1908. Wikipedia expands the story to include the adoption by Henry Ford and how the Clothing Workers union pushed for it. I find it hard to believe that this idea started in one place and spread from there. More likely it was part of an ongoing trend, particularly in the US, at that time, with the mill workers, Henry Ford and the Clothing Workers union notable milestones on the journey.

Through the push of unions through the early 20th century creating and defending worker’s rights, 5-day workweek has become the norm. It’s been that way for 4 generations and we don’t know any different.

I believe the 5-day workweek is holding back our potential and productivity.

Let me explain.

In theory, capitalism leads to efficient allocation of resources with people considered a resource. The reality in many companies is quite different. People are used extremely inefficiently.  How is it that large companies are able to lay off 1000s of employees and still deliver on their commitments? An efficient system wouldn’t tolerate such epic waste.

Over-hiring might not be the biggest waste of human resources. That honor falls to businesses with disengaged employees. Research shows us time and time again that employees who are engaged with their work are much more productive.  A 5-day work week demands that people work for 5 days. So they find a variety of work to fill their week and try to create value. Some of the work they do is interesting and engaging, some of it dull and boring.

For about a year, I’ve been asking friends, colleagues and and managers “How many days a week do you spend doing work that you really enjoy, and how many days do you spend doing work that is just there to fill a week?”.  Most people estimate there are two days per week when they’re not doing useful work. No wonder employee engagement is so low with so much time spent treading water. What a waste of human potential.

The solution? This change demands business owners take the lead. I call on entrepreneurs founding new businesses to try the 2-day-workweek business model.

A Vision for a 2-Day-Workweek Business

A 2-day-workweek business is only open 2 days per week. Employees work for 2 days. Everybody works on the same two days. Every employee does only work that they find enriching and really engages their skills. Jobs are scoped to put employees precisely in their sweet spot of capability and energy. Waste is eliminated, in part because employees really love what they do, and partially because the 2 day limit enforces discipline and focus. The company ends up with highly engaged employees which according to Gallup research, leads to 10% better customer satisfaction, 20% better profitability and significantly increases the chances of successful business outcomes.

Here’s an example. I was talking to a friend recently. She works in marketing. By default her company hires marketers to work 5-days a week. With only a few employees in marketing department that has many responsibilities, she’s been given responsibility for customer demand generation, and event marketing. The perception being that customer demand generation isn’t quite enough work for a full 5 day week, so event marketing has been added to make sure she’s delivering enough value out of her 5 days. She doesn’t enjoy the event marketing. She can do it, but it leaves her cold and drains her energy. Her gift for customer demand generation is being dampened by the energy draining event marketing and the company is getting substandard output.

In a 2-day-workweek company, she could be the expert and owner of demand generation.

Her employer could bring in someone who is brilliant at event marketing. What would my friend do with those other 3 days? Go and be brilliant at another 2-day-workweek company doing precisely what she’s great at and loves. 2 companies benefit from having the best demand gen and a highly engaged employee.

I can imagine innumerable objections to this model, in part because innovation — by necessity — breaks norms and expectations. Here we’re throwing away the assumption that society is built on working 5-days per week in one job. Here’s is a handful of objections to start off with:

Objection 1 – There are already plenty of people who work multiple jobs and it sucks for them. How is this better?

In general, people who work multiple jobs because they have to to make enough money to live on. These are typically lower paid workers whose companies use part-time status to avoid paying for benefits and use desperation for work to suppress wages. Generally these employees are taking any work that they can get, not work that they love and are great at. I don’t propose that this vision solves that problem. I’m focusing on skilled professional workers, starting from my frame in technology where I think this could work well.

Objection 2 – How would it work for customers?

There are already companies experimenting with closing for much more than a few days. Marie Forleo shut down her content business for a month last summer. It turns out customers are willing to wait for good service and good product.

Objection 3 – What if I work Monday and Tuesday at a company, and the other company I want to work for is also a Monday / Tuesday company?

That’s a real bummer. The good news is that with lots of adoption of this idea you’ll have lots of companies to choose from and you’ll love working at all of them!

Objection 4 – To make this work, you need more people to fill each area currently covered by one person. That means more communication overhead which is bad for productivity.

Have you noticed how when you’re working on a project with a tight deadline that decisions get easier and debate feels less important? There are times when a lot of communication is necessary, for example when safety and human life are at take it’s necessary to fully explore all possibilities and options. However, exploring all possibilities and options when you are – for example – discussing the phrasing in a form letter is usually overkill.

In part 4 of our culture series, I described Microsoft’s tendency to reward people for visibility which equated to many unnecessary meetings. Reacting to that culture, my current employer Socrata favors fewer scheduled meetings and warns that visibility in meetings is not a path to success. Time pressure from only having 2-day-workweek shortens communication to what is absolutely necessary. A 2-day-workweek business drives the need for simple, effective communication.

Objection 5 – Wouldn’t a 2-day-workweek business be at a competitive disadvantage to a 5-day business?

Remember, based on me asking people how much of their week makes good use of their skills and leaves them energized, most people are only doing great work 3 days per week, and most businesses have low engagement which causes underperformance. A 2-day-workweek business with highly engaged employees doing great work in their areas of expertise can easily perform at the same level as a 5-day company. And besides, why the rush?

Objection 6 – This approach unfairly burdens employers whose benefit bill for a 2-day-workweek business will be the same as if it were 5-days per week.

This is a reasonable statement. This is the sort of leap of faith one has to take to get the other benefits of this model, for example Objection 4 above that points out the added productivity, employee engagement and focus might be worth it. While there are many examples of businesses that choose not to give benefits to part-time employees, for example Walmart (see #7), there are others like Starbucks and Amazon (above) who do.

Objection 7 – How would an individual make this work today, when there aren’t lots of businesses to choose from?

Tough one. Particularly in tech, many people are starting new businesses using their own money without any immediate expectation of return. Why not found multiple 2-day-workweek businesses to increase your chance of finding product / market fit? Being an early adopter requires a leap of faith!

Is It Possible?

This model isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. There are several businesses that are already experimenting with a 4-day work week. Portland company Treehouse adopted a 4-day workweek.  Here’s another great story of a company that instituted a 4-day workweek in two overlapping shifts to give customers coverage the whole week. This Summer I was working 3 days a week at Socrata and 2 days a week at Reflective Management. I’ve never been happier. Being exposed to different cultures, different problem sets and different customers helped my creativity, and my focus.

Treehouse found that they were more focused and productive with their 4-day week. Other businesses are pushing boundaries in a different way and challenging the norm that a business must have a location. Buffer and Articulate abandoned physical office space and empower their workforce to work from wherever feels right for them: a coworking facility; a home office; the beach in Hawaii.

They recognize that this freedom helps people live lives that are more authentic lives, and they get repaid in better results.

Employees are already showing willingness to work multiple jobs. “Gig economy” sites like Fiverr and Upwork attract workers interested in taking their valuable skills from project to project. This is another step on the path to a 2-day-workweek business.

More challenging is the broad societal shift required for 2-day-workweek businesses to become common. The 5-day workweek is so encoded into society and our politics that 2-day-workweek businesses would come up against a wide variety of laws, regulations and trade groups that would cause friction: employment law, unions, the Affordable Care Act, business licensing. Here I look to an example like Uber which has encountered regulatory pressure as it tries to disrupt the personal transportation industry. The tension and conflict are time consuming, but necessary to find the new status quo.

In summary, companies like Amazon, Buffer, Treehouse and Articulate are all experimenting with ways to help employees balance their lives and their work with the hope of more engaged employees,better productivity and retention. The simultaneous trends of multiple jobs in the gig economy, office-less companies and 4-day working weeks are laying the foundation for this big shift. The future is 2-day-workweek businesses and like any new idea, it needs a few people to take the plunge and try it out. Who’s with me?

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Scott Jarol says:

    I LOVE this idea. I’m a program manager, and my key strength and contribution is in project management. In my past few of roles I’ve been called upon to rescue projects that have slipped off the rails. I’m skilled at this kind of problem solving, and I enjoy the challenge, but once the project is on track, my responsibilities usually shift into dealing with day to day administration, and I find myself exhausted, filling my days with work that could be accomplished by someone with much less experience, and far more enthusiasm. I’ve contemplated consulting, but I’d actually prefer the more stable and structured model James is suggesting. I wonder whether it’s possible right now to find two or three employers who need my problem solving skills for ten to 20 hours per week, and who have other staff members who enjoy the day to day administrative details.

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