People walk into the lobby of Amazon offices in New York in February 2019.
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Amazon began a major push to get employees back to the office earlier this year. Thousands of employees have protested the RTO policy. Insider has covered the contentious proceedings in detail.
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a remote work boom in which millions of employees stayed home and used Zoom and other technology to stay productive and communicate with colleagues online. Tech companies, including Amazon, embraced this new world, partly because it drove massive demand for services such as cloud computing, social media, online entertainment and video conferencing.
Now, with the pandemic ebbing, many companies have reversed course and are pushing staff to return to the office. Previous pronouncements about the revolutionary benefits of remote work have been replaced by vague, data-light arguments on productivity gains from being in the office. Even Zoom is giving up on remote work.
This is especially true for companies that have spent millions of dollars in recent years building ostentatious headquarters buildings. Apple, Meta, Bloomberg and Google all have gleaming HQs that would look very silly if those companies continued to embrace remote work.
Amazon built a pair of glass spheres in the middle of Seattle in 2016 for its HQ. Without employees in there, this would just be a very expensive greenhouse. The company also spent months pitting various cities against each other for its HQ2 office plan. Even before the pandemic, this had turned into a fiasco. But with the rise of remote work, the project looked even more misguided. Getting workers back into these spaces is a face-saving exercise to some degree.
Insider has asked Amazon for comment on its RTO policy several times in recent months and the company has responded. In July, spokesperson Brad Glasser said there’s “more energy, collaboration, and connections happening since we’ve been working together.”
“We continue to look at the best ways to bring more teams together in the same locations, and we’ll communicate directly with employees as we make decisions that affect them,” he added in an email.
Amazon’s RTO policy
The Amazon Spheres are seen from 6th Avenue at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in Seattle, Washington, U.S., January 29, 2018.
This all began in February, when Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said in an internal memo that the majority of employees would be required to come into the office “at least three days per week” starting in May.
He said “collaborating and inventing is easier and more effective” when working in person.
Almost 30,000 Amazon employees signed the petition to protest the company’s RTO mandate. That was close to 10% of the total corporate workforce.
In the petition, staff added internal data supporting continued remote work and dozens of comments explaining why they oppose the change. A companywide survey from last year, for example, showed an overwhelming 87% of employees preferring 1 to 2 days per week or less time in the office.
Still, some workers are in favor of the RTO push and they joined another Slack channel to promote the mandate, after ‘sensing the danger’ of others calling for permanent remote work.
That new Slack channel stated its intention to “Think Big” about the benefits of the RTO plan, which was in “danger” of getting overturned by the opposing “remote advocacy” group.
Amazon responds to pushback from employees
Amazon SVP of Human Resources Beth Galetti
A respected Amazon executive tried to quell employee angst over the RTO mandate in February, saying staff should not grab their “torches and pitchforks quite yet”.”
Paul Vixie, a vice president and distinguished engineer for the Amazon Web Services cloud unit, wrote that staff should be patient and wait until leadership shared more details.
However, by March, the company officially addressed employee concerns and the news was not good for fans of remote work.
Beth Galetti, Amazon’s top HR executive, formally rejected the RTO protest petition signed by almost 30,000 employees. She wrote that the petition was shared with CEO Andy Jassy’s leadership team and that the company still intended to move forward with its RTO plan.
Amazon begins to put the RTO policy into action
Amazon CEO Andy Jassy
As Amazon started putting the RTO policy into action, inevitable practical entanglements and other issues arose.
Company leadership had said they wanted all employees back in the office at least three times a week starting in May. But many of the company’s buildings seemed to be unready to accommodate a full slate of staff by that deadline, a sign that Amazon may have rushed its return-to-office announcement.
An internal guideline, obtained by Insider, listed Amazon office locations and the dates they are expected to be fully “ready” to support the RTO mandate.
In the days leading up to the May deadline, some employees became particularly anxious about how Amazon would track their office attendance.
One particularly contentious issue: How Amazon planned to use employee badging data While it can be common practice for companies to track badge data to understand office usage, some Amazon staff were worried that the company would use it to punish those who don’t adhere to the three-times-a-week RTO policy.
Amazon ups the ante by introducing ‘voluntary resignation’
People tour the Amazon Spheres during an opening event at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in Seattle, January 29, 2018.
The bombshell really dropped in July when Amazon started enforcing a “return-to-hub” policy. Hubs are central locations assigned to each individual team, and employees have to work out of those hubs instead of any office nearest to their current city.
One manager declared hubs in Seattle, New York, Houston, and Austin, Texas, for their team, according to one Slack message seen by Insider. It said those who refuse to relocate to one of those hubs will either have to transfer to a new team or they will be considered a “voluntary resignation.”
Insider obtained an internal guide that Amazon shared with some managers to help them discuss the “return-to-hub” policy with staff. The 10-page document, prepared for a specific group within the company, shed more light on the campaign.
“It is important to note that we do not necessarily expect the employee to make a decision in the initial conversation with you,” the document stated.
This new policy caused more consternation among some employees. And comments from another Amazon executive didn’t help either.
During an internal staff meeting, Mike Hopkins, SVP of Amazon Video and Studios, was asked if he had any data to share regarding the company’s recent decision to mandate working from the office. Hopkins said he had “no data either way” to show the effectiveness of in-office work versus remote work, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Insider.
Amazon is famous for using data to make decisions, so some workers found it frustrating that the company seemed to be rejecting this approach when it came to getting employees back to the office.
The RTO crackdown has outraged some employees in other ways
Employees walk through a lobby at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.
An email snafu sparked further controversy among Amazon’s corporate workforce.
In early August, some employees got an email accusing them of not adhering to the RTO policy. “We are reaching out as you are not currently meeting our expectation of joining your colleagues in the office at least three days a week, even though your assigned building is ready,” the email stated.
Some of the email recipients said the warning was sent to them by mistake because they’d been coming into the office as required.
Amazon has pushed on past this hiccup. The company is leaning in hard on its RTO plan by making exceptions to the policy extremely rare.
One Amazon manager said the company has a goal to keep the number of exceptions to a single-digit percentage across the company, including regional sales teams and protected groups, leaving a very small amount for individual cases.
That’s forcing some staff to consider drastic measures to comply with the order.
When all else fails, you have laugh sometimes. That’s what some Amazon employees have done by mocking the company’s RTO policy and its famous leadership principles.
In mid-August, an Amazon staffer shared a satirical version, titled “Leadership Principles for RTO,” on an internal forum. The post, reviewed by Insider, tweaked the 16 business dictums to show employee frustration, and has become an instant hit internally, making the rounds across the company, according to people familiar with the matter.
One of the principles from the mock list was “Deliver Butts to Seats,” a parody of “Deliver Results.”
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