Workers crying at their desks.
Workers subjected to anonymous criticism. Workers put on performance reviews after a miscarriage or cancer. The office isn’t what it used to be – at Amazon, anyway. This week, the New York Times revealed extraordinary stories of management practices at the tech giant’s Seattle HQ, where the most pugnacious employees earn the nickname of “Amholes”. And yet, as extraordinary as the anecdotes were, for many people, they rang a bell.
But in the storm of comment that the Amazon story unleashed, the picture was not as straightforwardly critical as you might have expected – and the public conversation about it was often heated. “Of course you’ve got conflict in teams, that’s what teams are about!” burst out radio talkshow host Nick Ferrari on Thursday morning, as he clashed with a female caller who said it was never OK to shout at colleagues. He was not alone. Meanwhile, Amazon fiercely battled the image that the story projected. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos fired off an email to employees in which he wrote that the article did not describe “the caring Amazonians I work with every day”, and suggested they read the detailed rebuttal posted on Linkedin by Nick Ciubotariu, a head of infrastructure in the company’s search department.
The reaction is fascinating, both for the new material it adds to the story – one former employee, “TechRecruiter” of Seattle, posted that “I still struggle with the Amhole nature within, resisting the desire to verbally castrate my current colleagues” – and because it so spectacularly demonstrates the gulf that divides Amazon’s attackers from its defenders. While some readers (including the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage) see the new information as the final straw, and will no longer shop with the world’s biggest retailer, others say: keep up the good work! And if you don’t like it, you can always leave!
So is more-or-less continuous performance management and appraisal, as practised by Amazon, a sinister form of corporate control-freakery? Are its anonymous feedback loops and combative culture akin to bullying? Or, as Ferrari claimed on the radio, should people working in highly competitive industries be prepared for a bit of argy-bargy? And is world-conquering, tax-avoiding Amazon a case apart, or does it light the path to all our futures? If the office is becoming a jungle, is that OK?
Tim Sullivan, author with Ray Fisman of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, and editorial director at Harvard Business Review Press, says feedback to the story has been different on the east and west coasts of the US, with much greater tolerance for Amazon in and around Silicon Valley. “Amazon is not a place where I would want to work, but their system seems to work for them,” he tells me in a phonecall. “I think the company has probably learned from the story that it had some over-eager managers, terrible managers – I don’t really know what to call them, the people driving people who were sick – and realised they need to put some safeguards in place. But I can’t imagine that the culture of the workplace is going to change very much.”
He thinks Amazon is an extreme case, remarkable for its degree of focus, and puts the high level of interest in technology companies down to voyeurism, as well as the creeping fear among white-collar workers that the robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence that Amazon and others are developing will one day make us all redundant.
So should we simply shake our heads, perhaps reflect on our shopping habits, and carry on? Alex Bryson, Head of Employment at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in the UK, says no. He believes the Amazon story is “highly relevant” to what is going on in the wider labour market both in the US and UK. (This week, a survey for British solicitors Slater and Gordon found that one in three respondents said they had been bullied at work.) “The issue of labour intensification – that is, the propensity of employers to press workers harder as a way of improving productivity – is very pertinent to policy debates such as that surrounding the living wage. The question is what benefits firms, what benefits employees, and what do government and society say about this?” he says.
But he also thinks “posturing” is a factor, and says “you can feel the stand-off between Amazon and Google, which has adopted an utterly different route and tried to create an environment conducive to workers reaching their full potential in their own way”. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg memorably began her bestselling manifesto Lean In with an anecdote about how, when she worked at Google, she marched up to the bosses to demand “pregnancy parking”, to which they immediately agreed. Amazon, by contrast, offers no paternity pay at all in the US.
But while Amazon is unapologetic about its reputation as a tough environment, and about its use of data to monitor how employees are doing, and “organizational level tanking” to weed out the weakest performers, Bezos insisted in his email that a policy of “lack of empathy” would be stupid, since it would cause staff to leave. Though none of the specific cases – including a woman put on a performance improvement plan shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child – was denied, Ciubotariu claimed the company has dramatically changed since he joined 18 months ago, and put such excesses behind it. Working at Amazon, both men insisted, is fun.
Whether or not this is true probably depends on the personalities of the employees doing the work. Undoubtedly, thousands of people thrive at Amazon. Others describe leaving the company feeling changed and even damaged (one woman, Beth Anderson, posted an open letter to Bezos explaining how her husband had gone into therapy after quitting).
But the business writers and academics I interviewed for this article all saw Amazon as an outlier, to differing extents, since evidence shows that the long hours and ultra-competitive culture the company fosters do not deliver the best results. The promise of wellbeing has become a recruitment tool in a fast-growing, high-tech sector panicked about hiring and keeping the best talent, as Bezos knows. But Sullivan, Bryson and others insist that persuading people not to leave your company is not the only reason to treat them well.
“The evidence I’ve seen is that happier, more cohesive teams produce better results, and overwork produces worse results and poorer decisions,” Sullivan says. “Maybe Amazon is finding a ton of people who are exceptions to that rule, but most people wouldn’t be at their best in those circumstances.”
He believes the “anytime feedback” tool, enabling employees to send anonymous online comments to managers, is Amazon’s single least attractive invention: “It’s entirely possible to bring out the worst in people. We’ve all read internet comments and I can’t imagine the culture produced by that. GE was famous for firing the bottom 10% [of staff] every year, but the idea that you’re going to enable people’s worst impulses is frightening to a lot of people.”
Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, believes the whole idea of a company as a meritocracy in which talent can rise to the top is flawed and out of date. “It’s based on a very primitive male instinct, a bunch of alpha-male chimpanzees fighting for mating opportunities – and this is not the world humans should be in, really. You can promote a kind of killer mentality and a place where the weak don’t survive,” he adds, “but this brings with it all kinds of problems of loyalty and culture. In highly individualistic organisations you don’t get any synergies – people working together.”
Consumerism may have reached nirvana in the US, where one Amazon employee described to the New York Times as “magical” the process of sourcing and delivering a doll to a customer in 23 minutes, but Nicholson says the Japanese showed long ago that group work was superior in terms of efficiency and quality. The most productive car plant in the world, he adds, is in Britain.
Bryson says that, until recently, data about the relationship between job satisfaction and productivity were missing, but interest from the French and UK governments in measuring wellbeing has led to new research: last month he and two colleagues published a paper showing a positive correlation between worker satisfaction and financial performance. He points to a study published last year, based on an experiment carried out in China that showed employees allowed to work from home were more productive than their office-based colleagues.
So what do workers want? Richard Exell, senior policy officer for the TUC, says the trend towards tighter supervision, and away from the gentler world in which weaker colleagues were more likely to be tolerated, dates back 20 years. He puts this down to a globalised world with more competitive pressures on business, but adds that new technology has played its part: “The prospectus was for a new age of independence and creativity. Instead, the potential for management to keep much closer tabs on people has become much more noticeable.” The weakening of trade unions has, he says, made it harder for employees to stand up for themselves in the face of unreasonable demands such as being contactable 24/7.
Much business literature has been devoted to the question of how to manage “generation Y”, the people born in the 1980s and 1990s now entering the jobs market and often seen as having distinctive skills and needs. With many people now retiring later, another question being examined by Marks and Spencer, among others, is how to manage multiple generations at once. While the Economist recently declared much of this to be “snake oil”, it admitted there may be differences between older workers and the generation coming up and offered up a tip of its own: forget about teamwork and “corporate do-goodery” and focus on individual performance instead.
Will Leonelli is head of human resources, or “peopleworks leader”, at Flight Centre, a travel agency founded in Australia that has 100 shops in the UK. Flight Centre is a growing and people-focused business, selling holidays in person and over the phone. Its co-founder, Graham “Skroo” Turner, was influenced by Nigel Nicholson’s approach, which draws on evolutionary psychology in making the case that more co-operative structures work best – particularly for women and others who find it difficult to win in the dog-eat-dog, or ape-eat-ape scenario that remains the default setting of many companies.
Flight Centre organises its business into families, villages and tribes, and the main team-unit (or family) never has more than seven people in it, while an area or “tribal leader” can have no more than 120 staff.
“We’re the opposite of a call centre,” says Leonelli. “That is fundamentally not our business model. If you’re in a team of 25 with one supervisor, you haven’t got any opportunity for progression, and if you’re a supervisor looking after such a large group, how can you effectively manage them? We fundamentally don’t believe that works.”
The business is very target-driven: every role is financially incentivised, and each year the top 10% of staff get sent on an all-expenses-paid trip, this year to Las Vegas. But Leonelli insists that individual competition is kept in check by systems that encourage team members to support each other, because “the whole is always greater than its parts”. Each team has a “pot of gold” to spend on having fun.
Opinions on performance management are sharply divided, with unions strongly opposed, and some evidence from polling that younger workers are more willing, and even eager, to be measured and rewarded in this way. Bryson points out that it will take a long time for other employers to catch up with Amazon, since most companies lack its data-analysis expertise. But he and colleagues at the London School of Economics have produced research based on an app, Mappiness, that records users’ feelings at different times of the day. The app is now being used in white-collar companies and health settings, with a view to boosting efficiency.
It is clearly possible to imagine the benign application of such technologies, and a thoughtful approach to human beings that recognises low mood can lead to poor service and outcomes. It’s equally possible to imagine unpleasant scenarios in which employees become accountable to their employers not only for their work, but for their feelings.
But even if these nightmares do not come true, and Nicholson and others turn out to be right that flatter companies with less hierarchical and more democratic structures – whether they are filled with staff from generations X, Y or Z – turn out to be better suited to the challenges of the future, such companies will not suit everyone.
“Our sheer size and complexity dwarfs everyone else, and not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge. But that doesn’t mean we’re Draconian or evil,” wrote Ciubotariu in his defence of Amazon. “Not everyone gets into Harvard, either, or graduates from there. Same principles apply.”
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