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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

Gary Mason

Don’t hold your breath for a 30-hour workweek Add to ...

Late last month, Internet retail giant Amazon.com announced it was launching a 30-hour workweek pilot project.

Under the program, the few dozen workers selected to participate will get 75 per cent of the pay full-time employees make, but will receive complete benefits. The project was immediately hailed as a brave, groundbreaking effort to rattle the foundation of the American workplace and end the stigma often associated with reduced hours. Others were more inclined to believe Amazon had ulterior motives – namely trying to restore its workplace reputation.

A year earlier, the New York Times published a devastating exposé on life at Amazon. It described a brutal employee environment that involved long hours and constant, unrelenting performance monitoring. The sight of workers weeping at their desks is common, the story said. Because of the hours people were expected to put in, it was posited that having children precluded one from climbing the company food chain. There was an annual “cull” of employees judged not to be keeping up with others.

“The pressure to deliver far surpasses any other metric,” one woman who left the company told the Times. “I would see people practically combust.”

In other words, it was a work environment Americans, and certainly many Canadians, too, could relate to. Amazon, not surprisingly, took issue with many aspects of the Times’s story, suggesting it was not the Darwinist hell hole the piece made it out to be. But now, a year later, it’s earning kudos for its bold foray into the fraught world of employee-employer dynamics, challenging traditional notions of American exceptionalism while at the same time recasting the grim, unhappy public image of its workplace culture.

A coincidence I’m sure. And also an endeavour certain to die an inevitable death.

While there has been more talk in recent years about offering employees greater flexibility in their working arrangements, the template of the modern day workplace remains very much in place. Yes, you can find job-sharing and four-day weeks, but the average North American worker continues to put in a minimum 40-hour week, and in many cases much longer than that. That will not change any time soon.

Sweden is one country that has been experimenting with 30-hour workweeks. A Toyota Centre went to one for some of its employees more than a decade ago. It’s still in place. A nursing home in Gothenburg is now trying it. After a year, the scheme apparently reduced absenteeism and improved productivity. But the home also had to hire 15 additional nurses to accommodate the reduced hours. No analysis has been done on what it has meant to the institution’s bottom line. But even in a country where the term work-life balance is taken seriously, Sweden has been in no rush to radically reduce the number of hours of what we generally view as a standard workweek.

Nor will there be a notable change in the prevailing ethos that has propelled Amazon to such heady retail heights. If anything, businesses around the globe want to know what Amazon is doing right. What they’ll discover could unnerve them.

For instance, Amazon employees have access to something called the Anything Feedback Tool, which allows them to rat out colleagues to management, or just trash the quality of their work. There is also software that allows Amazon managers to constantly monitor and evaluate a worker’s performance. It is similar to a product designed by the human-resources company, Workday, called Collaborative Anytime Feedback. Its promise is to turn the annual performance review into an everyday event. What fun! If you want to know what the workplace of the future is going to look like, Collaborative Anytime Feedback provides a better glimpse of it than a 30-hour workweek does. Far from being the relaxed, progressive, part-time-is-the-new-full-time utopian vision some are conjuring, it is unlikely to be anything like that.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and now one of the wealthiest humans on the planet, long ago outlined his management philosophy. “You can work long, hard and smart but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of the three,” he said in a letter to shareholders in 1997.

It is a mantra that still rules Amazon to this day. And if allowing a tiny fraction of his work force to log fewer hours is the price he must pay for a better public persona, Mr. Bezos is ready to ante up it. Just don’t confuse it for anything other than that.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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