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Glimpsing the future of work in warehouses


As people have hunkered down in their homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus, e-commerce is experiencing growth — because where else can you safely purchase all-purpose flour and kettlebells during a pandemic?

Amazon Inc., for example, in March and April announced plans to hire a total of 175,000 new warehouse and delivery workers in response to increased orders. And while that may be good news for job seekers, warehouse work can be challenging even in the best of times, when employees aren’t worrying about contracting COVID-19 on the job.

Alex Kowalski, a doctoral candidate at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

Alex Kowalski, a doctoral candidate at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research, has been studying jobs in warehousing for several years. He’s now working on a research project with two MIT Sloan professors to see if these jobs can be improved in ways that benefit both companies and employees. In an interview that took place before the outbreak of COVID-19, Kowalski talked about work in today’s warehouses, and what it tells us about how work is evolving in the 21st century.

You're studying work in the warehouse industry, where there’s a lot of change going on. Tell us a little bit about your project.

I’m focused on two aspects of warehousing: scheduling and technology. In an earlier project, I had the chance to talk to warehouse workers about their jobs. I learned that what bothered them most was their schedules: How volatile their hours were and how hard that made their life outside of work.

MIT Sloan Professors Erin Kelly and Hazhir Rahmandad and I presented this preliminary observation to the company where I had conducted the interviews, and company executives were interested. So we spent the spring of 2019 traveling to a subset of this company’s warehouses all across the U.S., interviewing both workers and managers.

We have what we call a dual-agenda perspective, which means a focus on redesigning work in ways that benefit both employees and the company. Part of the dual-agenda approach is that we get to hear both what workers find challenging but also why managers do things the way they do. So we talked to over a hundred people. That part of our research was supported by the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan.

What did you learn from the interviews about the scheduling issues?

Most workers in warehousing have what at first blush might look like a stable schedule: they work 40 hours a week, or at least they’re supposed to. So they don't face the problem that many retail or fast-food workers face of not getting enough work to pay the bills.

Instead, warehouse workers’ scheduling issues arise because they don't know when they're going to go home. The reason they don't know is because everybody is on their computers ordering a new pair of shoes or a refrigerator whenever they feel like it, which makes it hard to predict customer demand with really good accuracy. Workers have to respond to customer whims, staying as late as necessary to fill the orders in a timely manner. As a result, they experience unpredictability and a lack of control over their schedules, which comes in the form of long, late hours caused by mandatory overtime.

Does this mean that when, as a consumer, you're clicking that button on a website that says “I want delivery in two days,” you're creating misery in a warehouse somewhere?

There's a good chance that’s the case, especially depending on what you're ordering and when you're ordering it. If it's the weekend before the 4th of July and you're buying beach chairs or towels, then you're probably going to be making people work late right on the eve of a holiday when they would like the time off themselves.

One thing that was clear in my interviews was that unstable, unpredictable schedules have real costs to people's personal lives. They weigh on people's relationships and make it hard to form new ones. And they also lead to physical exhaustion that creates secondary problems. I've heard about car crashes. I've heard about leaving children at daycare past their pick-up time. I've heard about missing important life events. Often people are trying to find a different employment situation largely because their schedules are so difficult.

Wouldn't it be possible to have a pool of people who are interested in taking on additional work? It seems like a company should be able to manage the amount of mandatory overtime.

One solution is hiring people who either express an interest in a certain schedule, or creating different employment categories with different schedules.

Another path forward is job rotation, giving people the skills to perform more than one function. Within warehouses, there are multiple kinds of jobs. And often, depending on the size of the warehouse, workers do just one. On a high-volume day, one way to prevent people from staying overtime too long is to ask those in another part of the operation where they don't have as much work that day to come help the people who do.

The third path we’re considering is giving workers some control or input over when they work. This could be accomplished by some kind of tool — an app, for example — where workers are able to either bid on the overtime available or to pre-plan days when they won’t work overtime. This could extend all the way to helping set schedules in advance or to shift swapping.

How do the technological changes going on in warehouses weave into your research? 

There are many different approaches and visions out there. And so it's an intriguing time to compare these different visions and ask: What are their implications for the workers who are going to work with the various technologies?

Think of the conveyor belt, which in a way is a robot that doesn't (on the surface) need humans at all. When that thing jams, it shuts down the entire warehouse. I think robots that are designed with the intent of totally removing humans the way that a conveyor belt does are actually going to create a lot of problems — at least initially — as organizations try to adjust to them. Companies should be asking themselves this same question, and they should be taking input from their workforce to arrive at an answer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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