Leadership

Why Amazon and other companies are trying 30-hour workweeks

Young professional with laptop at work
Ezra Bailey | Getty Images

For today's always-on, ever-connected workers, it's no surprise that the traditional 9-to-5 is dying. But what will the new normal look like?

Rather than expecting employees to work more, some companies are experimenting with shorter schedules.

Recently, Amazon announced that it is piloting a new 30-hour workweek for a group of technical teams within the human resources department. Employees work from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and the remaining 14 hours of work for the week can be distributed whenever is convenient for the employee. In exchange for the flexible schedule, employees get 75 percent of their normal salaries and receive full benefits.

"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 says in an invitation to a talk about the new program. In the test program, everyone on the team will be working part-time, including managers.

Amazon is not the only company testing new schedules. An online search optimization company in Sweden, Brath, operates on a six-hour workday schedule and offers full pay and benefits. Its leadership touts its high retention and ability to be ultra-productive.

"Today we get more done in six hours than comparable companies do in eight," says Magnus Brath, founder of Brath, in a post on the company's website. "We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in eight hours straight. Six hours is more reasonable, even though we too, of course, check Facebook or the news at times."

And currently, a care center for the elderly in Sweden, Svartedalens, is running a trial period of having employees on six-hour shifts, according to Henrik Dahlberg, a spokesperson for the city of Gothenburg.

The trial started in February 2015 and will end in January, and employees still get full pay. A mid-experiment evaluation found that work-related illness decreased from 6.4 percent to 5.8 percent. Meanwhile, the staff reported feeling better, and the patients reported better care, Dahlberg tells CNBC.

The flip side of the shorter workday at the Svartedalens care center is that it had to hire 14 new nurses, an additional cost of $706,000.

To be sure, the experiment has been a subject of debate. "The project has been fiercely debated in the City Council," Dahlberg says. "This trial has seen huge media coverage, and it is fairly well known among people in Gothenburg. I have not seen much criticism from the general public. My guess is that center/right voters find the trial somewhat unrealistic whereas green/left voters are hopeful and see this project as a way of challenging the eight-hour norm."

There are also a lot of variables. While it's possible for some companies to accelerate productivity, not all workers can shrink the length of their day with the same results. There's no way for a barista to tend a coffee shop for eight hours in only six, for instance.

What we do know, however, is that working long hours in stressful conditions can be bad for your health.

A study of more than 600,000 men and women found health risks associated with working long hours, according to an October report published in the The Lancet, a medical journal.

"Employees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours," the report says. Longer hours were defined as 55 hours or more worked each week for the study.

Despite such warnings, Americans can't seem to pull away. In the U.S., the average full-time worker is actually working at least 47 hours, according to a Gallup poll. And women who are given access to workplace flexibility programs often don't use them for fear of being professionally penalized, according to the annual Women in the Workplace study from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company.

Then again, trying to complete a full week's work in fewer hours may also be stressful.

"A four-day week causes workers to squeeze more hours than usual into a day. For workers who are already prone to overwork, the additional burden of compressing five days into four could literally break the camel's — or worker's — back," says Allard E. Dembe, a professor of public health at Ohio State University, in an article he wrote for The Conversation.

"I don't know about you, but the prospect of a four-day week scares me," he said. "I already have a hard enough time getting my regular weekly work done over five days."

While more companies are experimenting with alternative work schedules, they remain in the minority. The majority of workers will have to police their own time, and that may mean setting boundaries.

"Why not just pull back at a certain point? Maybe it's time to take Friday off every so often," Dembe suggested.