The coronavirus has created lots of challenges for companies that want to remain open but operate safely. Anyone who’s been to a store or office in recent months has seen the plexiglas dividers, hand sanitizing stations, and changes in the flow of pedestrian traffic, all meant to protect people from infecting each other.
As I first argued in The Atlantic back in April and have elaborated elsewhere, companies don’t only have to redesign their space to become safer workplaces; they can also think about how to redesign time to reduce office occupancy. By shortening working hours and creating distinct “pods” of employees who keep separate from and don’t risk infecting each other, companies can stay open, keep customers safe, and support employees.
One great example of a company taking this approach is Danish manufacturer KKI Plast. They’re a small complex plastic parts fabricator in the town of Vejle, a small, picturesque city in southern Denmark.
In early 2020, company founder Fleming Juhler tried to encourage his seven employees to think about how to move away from the traditional 8:00-4:00 schedule, but hadn’t had any luck. When coronavirus arrived, though, it became clear that they needed to change how they worked. The company uses a variety of milling machines, CNC machine tools, and other highly specialized equipment, so people couldn’t work from home. At the same time, it was going to be essential to reduce the number of people on the factory floor at any given time.
Juhler divided his workforce into two groups, and put each on a 3-day week, working 12-hour days from 4:00 am to 4:00 pm. People were skeptical at first about the new schedule, but no one wanted to risk infection (Denmark shut down early and aggressively, and has been better than many countries at containing the virus), and so they agreed to give it a try.
After acclimatizing to the new schedule, Juhler and his employees found that there were some additional benefits to the new schedule. Most of their jobs require a couple different machines, which could lead to queues and delays. As Juhler told one paper (via Google Translate):
When employees work on an order, the processing of the special plastic part typically takes place on several different machines. This means that there may well be a short queue for a machine. We did not have this challenge during the time with corona, where only half of the employees were in the workshop… [T]he employees could quickly move from machine to machine and the individual task was performed more efficiently and without interruptions. This made it easier for us to finish the task and start the next task and the next task and the next task again.
As a result, overall productivity at the company has gone up.
This is similar to the experience of the repair shop at Toyota Gothenburg, which years ago moved its mechanics from an 8-hour to a 6-hour shift, while moving the garage to a 12-hour day. The combination allowed the mechanics to work faster, while the longer hours meant that customers had more opportunities to drop off and pick up cars, and the garage could get through bigger jobs more quickly. And Amgen’s manufacturing facility in Ireland likewise has shifted to a “pod” system in which ten people work together.