It would have been better timing for me to publish this workforce-oriented column on the Labor Day weekend, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my family.
My attitude might be “old-fashioned” in the fast-paced tech world, and I am pretty sure that I would not survive for even one day working at places like Amazon.com. So I read the New York Times’ exposé on the workings inside Amazon – focused largely on white collar professionals – with mixed feelings.
The Times’ article is long, about 6,000 words, but the gist is an age-old issue manifested in the modern tech-savvy world: How to maximize employers’ utilization of employees’ labor or brain power.
Decades ago, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, studying time and motion in labor-intensive work tasks, made assembly line work possible, and profitable (link). In modern service oriented industries, the race is on how to incentivize (I really hate this word, but, ah well…) professional brainiacs. Amazon.com’s owner, Jeff Bezos, started his enterprise determined to not let the company slip into the typical corporate culture of bureaucracy, regimented rules and processes, or conventional practices of any kind.
He intended, I am sure still intends, to instill in Amazon a “perpetual entrepreneurial” spirit. One can hardly argue with his “leadership principles; (link)” such as customer obsession, hire and develop the best, or insist on the highest standards. Would anyone object to these ideas? Further, most people would react with, “Finally!, someone with vision.” However, like all statements de jour of vision and mission, and pledges of ethical behavior, the ultimate test lies in the execution. The New York Times’ article is about how Amazon has executed these “leadership principles.”
The article portrays the Amazon’s white collar environment as a high-octane, fiercely consumer-oriented, constantly striving for excellence, in which colleagues could be supportive, demanding, competitive, or back-stabbing. Nothing new, just magnified by 10 at Amazon.
For instance, many who have worked at Amazon mentioned colleagues leaving meetings in tears, from the combative, confrontational tone of “critiquing” each other’s ideas. While this may not be universal across Amazon, how widespread should it be? Would 10 percent of the work force – 180,000 employees – be acceptable? 20 percent?
Working 60-80 hours a week is a norm; conference calls on Thanksgiving or other holidays are necessary at times; keeping up with emails while on vacations isn’t a rule but is expected… All true also in many other organizations; however, at Amazon, a person receiving an email at, say 10 p.m. might get a follow up text if that person doesn’t respond to the email within an hour.
People who take time off tending sick loved ones, taking care of one’s own chemotherapy and recovery process, or dealing with grief often find themselves being put on a “performance improvement plan.” In other words, your time off is on you and will reflect against your career progress. Again, this isn’t unique to Amazon, just bigger per the company’s Amazonian size. As one former employee said, “When you are not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.” (NYTimes report)
Not surprisingly, many young people, especially singles with fewer commitments outside of work, thrive in Amazon’s work environment. Many also see their “short” stint – however one defines it — at Amazon as a stepping stone for better career opportunities elsewhere. And some leave the company feeling drained and needing a lengthy period to recover.
Regardless of how the employees, former or current, handle the work environment, one thing seems clear; their work habit sticks with them, for better or for worse. For those who thrive on the intensity, they continue their “pursuit of higher performance” wherever they go, and thereby make themselves attractive to the next employer.
Others who leave the company with a bad taste, may nevertheless appreciate the Amazon discipline. It’s not that the latter group doesn’t care for excellence, they just prefer excellence as manifest in a kinder spirit of their own definition and choosing.
Ultimately, my major question is: Would “perpetual start-up spirit” within one entity eventually morph into its own conventional form and choke off the very spirit it has tried to engender? I don’t know the answer … and, not knowing the answer would be another objectionable response at Amazon. Truly, I wouldn’t survive for even half of a day.
In the next column, I will summarize some reactions to this article … and of course add my own nickel’s worth. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: “Amazonians” and “Amabots” are used internally by people working in Amazon, but “Amholes” are used by some outsiders.
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.