Unlike many of its tech-sector peers, Amazon is eschewing a hybrid workplace.
The Seattle-based commerce giant told employees in a companywide announcement that it is planning a “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline.” The transition away from remote work is expected to wrap up by autumn, according to the announcement Tuesday. Working in offices, the note said, “enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”
Amazon had previously given its return-to-office date as June 30, but questions remained as to whether Washington state’s largest employer would allow some of its 60,000 Seattle-area office employees to continue working from home part time.
It had seemed unlikely Amazon would allow employees to stay away from the office permanently. While some companies shed office space during the pandemic, Amazon bulked up, signing leases for millions of additional square feet of Puget Sound office space and pressing forward on building its own towers here and elsewhere.
Amazon executives preach a culture of in-person collaboration within “two-pizza teams” — groups small enough to be fed with two pizzas. Incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy knocked remote work in an interview with CNBC last year, saying staying home during the pandemic made it hard to “riff the same way” with co-workers to develop new ideas.
Among Amazon employees, reaction was mixed and at times indignant, with some saying they would start looking for jobs elsewhere if Amazon forces them back to the office full time. Several downtown Seattle business owners, though, greeted the news with joy: They say the return of Amazon workers to offices will be the linchpin of an economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Any time you’ve got an employer of [Amazon’s] scale and size … that has an outsized impact of ‘feet on the street’ on the restaurants and bars and cafes and other small businesses around them, that are now able to maybe be more stabilized and keep their doors open and make it through this,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. It’s “a huge deal.”
Other major technology companies have said the experience of working remotely during the pandemic had convinced them that employees did not need to be in the office full time in order to work effectively.
Google announced Wednesday that its employees will begin trickling back to offices in April. The company, which employs nearly 6,000 Seattle-area workers, has said it will pilot a hybrid workplace model in which employees are expected to be in the office three days a week starting in September.
In a blog post last week announcing the reopening of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, executive vice president Kurt DelBene wrote that the company’s “goal is to give employees further flexibility, allowing people to work where they feel most productive and comfortable, while also encouraging employees to work from home as the virus and related variants remain concerning.”
Other companies have gone further: Seattle-headquartered Zillow announced last summer that it will give its roughly 5,400 employees nationwide the option to work remotely for good. Salesforce, which owns Seattle’s Tableau, has given its workers the same flexibility.
Many Amazonians on social media said they had hoped the company would continue allowing them a greater degree of flexibility in their work arrangements.
If forced to come into the office five days a week, “I’d want to leave the company,” said a Seattle-area Amazon Web Services (AWS) employee in an interview. Like every Amazon employee interviewed for this article, he requested anonymity in order to speak freely about his future plans. “When I used to be in the office, it felt like everyone was already watching you clock in and out. Now, my work is getting done and that’s what matters.”
His performance ratings have drastically improved, he’s getting better sleep and he often finds time to go hiking or kayaking during the workday, he said. While his direct manager seems open to the idea of letting employees keep working from home part time, division leadership has insisted workers return to the office, leaving him, for now, “in limbo,” he said.
A Seattle-area Amazon manager said working remotely has saved her nearly three hours each day she’d otherwise spend commuting, allowing her to take her two children to sports practice and help them with their remote schooling — activities she doesn’t want to give up.
“I’ve seen more senior management have a weird reaction to working from home permanently, as if it’s not something that’s done, as if Amazon cannot do that. Saying we absolutely cannot work remotely is Day 2 thinking,” she said, referring to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ belief that employees should behave as if it is always Amazon’s first day in business because “Day 2 is stasis … Followed by death.”
“We have proved for the past year that we can work remotely and kick ass doing it,” she said. If Amazon doesn’t reverse course on its office-centric policy, she predicted “a mass exodus of employees” to other companies with more flexibility.
“With so many companies announcing remote and hybrid as a new normal, it seems as though Amazon is moving in the wrong direction,” said a third Seattle-area Amazon employee, who planned to begin looking for work elsewhere.
Amazon workers also expressed concerns about the potential health impact of requiring nearly 60,000 colleagues to return to offices, possibly before all have been vaccinated. Amazon will not require office workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they head back to their desks, but the company is encouraging employees and contractors to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible, Amazon spokesperson Jose Negrete said.
Workers described being packed “elbow to elbow” in many Amazon office buildings. One said his team grew so rapidly they ran out of desk space. The Amazon manager questioned whether some of the company’s office ventilation systems are powerful enough to reduce the concentration of coronavirus in the air.
Amazon has said it “maintain[s] strong safety protocols, such as temperature screenings upon entry, physical distancing guidelines, face covering requirements, office occupancy limits, and enhanced cleaning in all offices.”
“To go back into the office and still have to wear a mask and social distance, it defeats the point, when I can work comfortably from home,” the AWS employee said.
Businesses around Amazon’s expansive South Lake Union campus, though, rejoiced after hearing that the company’s workers would be heading back to the office.
“This is really good news for us,” said Cajetan Mendonca, the owner of three South Lake Union food trucks. He estimated nearly 90% of his business came from Amazon employees on their lunch breaks. “I have a long list of people who came to our trucks regularly every day,” he said. “It was like a family.”
Since the start of the pandemic, he’s laid off seven employees, and while he’s made attempts to keep the food trucks running, “there’s just not enough foot traffic downtown to support them.”
Amazon’s return is “transformative for us,” said Rachel Marshall, founder of Rachel’s Ginger Beer, which two weeks ago partially reopened its Seventh Avenue and Lenora Street shop across the street from the Amazon Spheres. The location originally opened in late 2019, roughly four months before the pandemic struck. Marshall said she watched as the 25,000 Amazon employees “that we were counting on when we signed that lease … evaporated overnight.”
Although Amazon’s announcement is seen as promising for the recovery of downtown Seattle, it’s less clear whether the decision could influence other local employers, some of which have already signaled a continuing role for remote work.
Nordstrom anticipates a large continued role for work from home. The Seattle-based company said in February it was reducing its downtown office footprint in part because it expected some employees to keep working remotely long-term. A Nordstrom spokesperson said Wednesday the company had no new information to share about its thinking on remote work.
Starbucks likewise reported no change in its own work-from-home policy for employees stationed in its Sodo headquarters. The policy will remain in place at least until October, a company spokesperson said Wednesday.
Amazon’s latest decision on remote work, combined with other positive news, such as accelerating vaccinations, could prompt other employers that may be on the fence about returning to the office to start making plans to do so, Scholes said.
“There’s probably many that haven’t made a decision yet,” Scholes said. “So I think Amazon’s decision might be sort of a trigger for them to say, ‘OK, maybe we should … be figuring out when we’re coming back.”