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Why Amazon's RTO is the perfect example of big tech hypocrisy

August 31, 2023

A few days ago I found myself down a scroll hole on LinkedIn, where everyone and their mother was giving their two cents on Andy Jassey’s red line on Amazon RTO. The RTO/WFH debate is such a can of worms, particularly in tech, but as an ex-Amazonian myself I feel some type of way regarding Jassey’s announcement. My biggest issue isn’t how many days we are or aren't spending in office; no, this is a values conflict. 

Let’s be FFR: Jeff Bezos built this business by effectively brainwashing pretty much every person that walked through the door. That’s not a criticism - I have a lot of respect for Jeff; it takes a real commitment (bordering on delusion) to convince over a million employees worldwide to do what you want them to do in precisely the way you want them to do it. In my years at Amazon, I was blown away time and time again by the blurred line between company and cult. 

Most companies have their own lingo, but working at Amazon requires fluency in a completely different language. My first few months I spent hours poring over an online Wiki page that functioned as a dictionary for the tens of thousands of acronyms used internally. At every meeting - sometimes even at work drinks - at least one person would quote one of the Leadership Principles, verbatim. My skip manager once told me he knew two Amazon employees who were married and raising their children with those same LPs. I mean, can you imagine telling a six year old to “disagree and commit”?

For the uninitiated, the Leadership Principles at Amazon are the equivalent of their company values. Every decision, every decision, is made and justified according to those LPs - it’s like the Constitution of the United States. I drank the Kool Aid, obviously, and to this day some of those LPs are still branded onto my prefrontal cortex. Because one thing about me is I live and die by values; there is nothing that irks me more than when a company says one thing on their website and does a completely different thing IRL. And therein lies the rub!!!

Andey Jassey recently came down hard on company’s RTO policy, enforcing three days in a central hub per week - then saying that for employees who wouldn't comply, “it’s probably not going to work out for you at Amazon”. This threat is so thinly veiled one might call it not even veiled at all, given that employees refusing to adhere to this new policy will undergo “voluntary termination” - i.e. be forced to resign without severance pay.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and debate the merits of RTO v WFH, because that’s a separate conversation (my one-liner is generally: if you want to be in office 7 days a week, I completely and utterly respect that decision, the same way YOU should respect the decision of someone that doesn’t want that for themselves). But what I am going to do is say with my chest that this was handled absolutely horribly by Andy Sassy - oops, I mean Jassey. 

The one thing - the ONE thing - that they tell you to do at Amazon is make data-driven decisions. Like, that’s it, that’s half the job: to back up every single choice made either individually or collectively with hard, quantitative data. In a leaked recording, Andy failed to give evidence when pressed and instead said that this was a “judgment call”, aka totally anecdotal. This alone goes against almost everything that we’re taught as Amazonians. The cardinal rule of Amazon is to not make decisions without being able to back them up with data. This is most often quoted as the LP “dive deep”, which when said in a team meeting basically means, “get your f*cking a$$ on a pivot table and give us hard numbers”. As an example, here’s some data for you: an internal petition asking for WFH flexibility was signed by 30,000 Amazonians. THIRTY THOUSAND.

But don’t worry, because there are even MORE LPs that this decision is in direct contrast with! Amazon has always said that they “hire and develop the best”, but more recently - while I was actually at the company - they actually came up with a whole new LP, “strive to be Earth’s best employer”. Let me just copy and past the definition of this LP here for you:

Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.

I mean, this just speaks for itself. Threatening employees who do not comply with voluntary termination doesn’t strike me as particularly empowering. 

I joined the Ads org at Amazon in 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, and my entire org worked remotely almost the whole time I was there. My own director led by example and almost never came into the office - I’m pretty sure he actually moved to a different country. In memos and emails, he made it extremely clear that he was prioritizing being with his family and was making full use of the WFH policy. I myself was hardly ever in the office. Another colleague on my team literally moved to Broadstairs, for Pete's sake. And yet, the following year in 2021, the Ads org posted revenues of $31 billion - up 32% to become one of the fastest growing advertising businesses on the planet. So honestly, I don’t wanna hear shit about how people can’t work effectively from home because we've seen firsthand that it can be done.

Now, I understand that industries differ, but for the most part - especially in tech - we are aware that we can work well from home. I know a fact I benefited HUGELY from working from home during my own tenure at Amazon. More broadly, given the line of work I am in now, I would go as far as to say WFH, at least part of the week, encourages a healthy separation from work and self. Because I talk so much about enmeshment, we all know that having an identity outside of work can protect us from burnout.

Obviously, this has opened a can of worms online. Personally, I agree with those “predicting massive churn”, especially of top talent, and I agree with that one guy who posted that “Amazon is a great company to poach from right now”.  One thing is and has always clear to me: if you’re not going to live by the values that you have written on your walls, “it’s probably not going to work out for you”.

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