Amazon will allow many tech and corporate workers to continue working remotely indefinitely, as long as they are able to commute to the office when necessary, according to a blog posted Monday. That’s a change from Amazon’s previous expectation that most employees would need to be in the office at least three days a week once offices reopen in January.
Monday’s message, signed by Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, explains that Amazon directors — a title at the company signifying an executive who oversees a handful of teams — will have the discretion to allow teams under their purview to stay remote.
“We expect that there will be teams that continue working mostly remotely, others that will work some combination of remotely and in the office, and still others that will decide customers are best served having the team work mostly in the office,” Jassy wrote. “We’re intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days — this is for Directors to determine with their senior leaders and teams.”
The new policy, which applies to the nearly 60,000 Amazon office workers in the Puget Sound region, is likely to ratchet up anxieties among South Lake Union business owners and further complicate forecasts for the future of the Seattle office market. Amazon employees, meanwhile, appeared largely nonplussed by the announcement, with some saying it remains to be seen how many teams will actually gain approval to work remotely.
Permitting longer-term remote work could give Amazon more flexibility in responding to President Joe Biden’s nationwide mandate, announced last month, that companies with more than 100 employees must either require workers to be vaccinated or test regularly for the coronavirus. Amazon has been reluctant to require employees to get the vaccine amid fears that many of its warehouse workers could quit in protest.
In the blog post, Jassy thanked the Amazon employees who have been unable to work remotely during the pandemic “for their passion. It is highly appreciated.” Those workers include the vast majority of Amazon’s more than 1 million employees worldwide, who work in the company’s fulfillment and transportation divisions, as well as its AWS data center and physical retail employees. Roughly 20,000 of Amazon’s Washington state employees work in the company’s warehouses.
Amazon’s update to its return-to-work policy follows similar moves from other tech giants. Microsoft announced last month that it had postponed reopening its offices indefinitely; Google has said it anticipates roughly 20% of its workforce will continue to telecommute full-time.
That emerging consensus around remote work will likely deepen the woes of small businesses in downtown Seattle, even as tourism rebounds. Recent data from the Downtown Seattle Association indicates that only about one-quarter of office workers in Seattle’s urban core have returned to their offices.
The company’s newest policy twist may dash the hopes of restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, gyms and other ground-floor businesses around Amazon’s South Lake Union campus, which had been anticipating that foot traffic and revenues would rise once Amazon fully reopened its offices in the neighborhood next year.
“We’ve definitely been seeing the return of workers to those towers as the light at the end of tunnel,” said Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures restaurant group.
The company operates four businesses in South Lake Union, including an upscale Italian restaurant and a bar inside the Amazon spheres.
“The restaurants have really suffered over past 18 or 19 months, not having folks down there,” Price said.
Restaurants and shops once dependent on a lunchtime crush of badge-wearing Amazon employees say they’re relying on people who live in the neighborhood, construction workers and the trickle of Amazon workers who are already back in the office.
For Seattle Coffee Works, which operates a cafe in the Cascade neighborhood, Amazon’s announcement is “disheartening,” said CEO Heather Schmidt.
The coffee company beefed up its subscription offerings during the pandemic and relied on customers who live near its coffee shops when office buildings went quiet.
“We can’t rely on one company to be our supporters. We’re here for the entire community,” Schmidt said.
Price estimates Sea Creatures’ South Lake Union restaurants are at roughly 70% of pre-pandemic business. Amazon, as the restaurants’ landlord, has forgiven rent since early in the pandemic — “a lifeline” until business returns, Price said.
“I can appreciate where they’re coming from but it’s a tough one for all the people downhill from that decision,” Price said.
Amazon’s move on remote work also adds uncertainty to attempts to forecast future demand for office space in downtown cores. The company, Seattle’s largest occupier of office space, has long had an outsize effect on the local office market.
The amount of vacant office space across the region has climbed this year amid many companies’ reluctance to mandate a return to offices during a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant.
Commercial real estate brokers, though, have remained bullish, pointing to under-construction Amazon office projects on the Eastside as a sign that the company expects offices to remain relevant in the long term.
With new office construction on the Eastside for Amazon, “I just can’t believe they’re going to commit to all these lease rates and not fill it,” said Brian Hatcher, president of the commercial brokerage Kidder Mathews. Hatcher predicts an eventual shift back to office work.
“I just don’t think this changes things,” Hatcher said of Amazon’s announcement.
If it does signal a longer-term policy, the move could cement pandemic-era trends in the housing market. As remote work set in last year, renters and homebuyers looked farther from pricey city centers and the suburbs boomed. Meanwhile, demand for in-city rentals and condos dropped.
Amazon employees looking to buy homes “can look now farther out,” said Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner. “They can move out farther to Snohomish, Pierce, maybe Kitsap.”
On social media and in interviews, Amazon employees appeared hesitant to conclude the new policy was a significant relaxation of the company’s previous stance on remote work.
The new policy “doesn’t feel very meaningful to me,” an Amazon office employee in Seattle, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, said in an interview Monday. “The assumption previously was basically that a director wouldn’t approve individual remote work without a very good reason, so I’m not very optimistic that will change.”