I conducted a phone interview* with one of the directors at Metro Plastics, Lindsey Hahn. Metro Plastics is one of the places that implemented the Healy's 30/40 management strategy: pay your employees for 40 hours whilst they work only 30. This system has been in operation at Metro Plastics since 1996 and they have "proudly" been able to keep it inplace through the recession.
The picture that emerges from the interview is curious and perhaps illuminates the greatest thought barrier to a shorter standard working week: it's easier to switch to shorter standard working hours where production is mechanised because the "machine makes the decision." Which is to say not all of Metro Plastics works on the 30/40 system: only the factory itself does. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; employees work 6 hours shifts, 5 days a week. But the management office where 'pencil pushing' and customer service activities take place works a standard 40 hour week, '8 hour' day.
What's the story?
Hahn says that it would be impossible to implement the shorter working hour standard for the office type work because they need to deal with customers across timezones, in the US and abroad.
I don't know if I buy that customer needs are too difficult to schedule into an eight hour day.
Hahn explained how Metro Plastics is able to maintain pay levels at 40 hours a week:
Cost savings are multiplicative and according to Lindsey "makes up for itself." Managers no longer have to deal with issues like tardiness or absenteeism because the cost to the employee for lost time is so high; quality control oversight is easier because there are no breaks (for lunch or cigarettes) so there's never a question as to who was responsible for a mistake, and mistakes are fewer because no substitutions on the assembly line have to be made whilst employees break (no cross training across jobs is necessary so everyone doing what they do is an expert; over an 8 hour period 3 substitutions used to have to be made).
Metro Plastics factory is staffed with (this again is disappointing) a demographic that tends to work part-time hours anyway: older people (grandparents very often), students, single parents.
Employees receive full benefits, 401k, and (even!) tuition re-imbursement.
Hahn says of tuition re-imbursement the as employers they "expect that you'll educate yourself to the point where we can't afford you any more." Working in the factory at Metro Plastics isn't considered "a full life career" by the company and yet there's a sense of job security.
They make no distinction for part-time, that is, the working hours aren't devalued as such and receive the same benefit as full-time working hours. (nb part-time work in the US is considered anything 30 hours and below, very often defined by law as such)
But the distinction made between the 40 hour office work and the 30 hour factory work, where both are valued the same in terms of receipt of benefits, both have a sense of employer investment in the employee as a person, the difference -- is it lack of respect to the office workers that they work 40 hours a week? Why are they more responsible to the company, owe the company more time-- if we leave aside consideration of actual pay levels and think in terms of benefits?
This isn't the first time I've encountered skepticism that people who don't do shift work (includes public servants where 'shift' like hours can be more readily enforced) could work a shorter standard work week.
(Try talking to social entrepreneurs about a shorter standard work week-- OMG!)
When I began thinking about the form of the experiment I expected that the barrier would be the other way around: shift workers, people who physically make things would be the job class where implementing a standard shorter work week would be the most difficult.
In my mind, people that do office type work, where interaction and conceptual skills are more important would be easier: from my own experience the writing, research, whatever goes faster if I'm less intellectually exhausted. Even in the middle of a longer day, I'm always more refreshed after I've taken a walk, stopped to look in a local gallery on my way from point A to point B. Differentiation in my use of time during the day-- even if it means fewer hours at the desk working-- always has a positive effect on my productivity per hours worked because it's easier to focus (Tweetdeck off, of course ;).
I have to admit I'm ... puzzled. Are you?
*interview conducted 4 January 2011 by phone