Technology

Amazon will leave remote work decisions to individual team leaders in new policy twist

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy speaks at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 5, 2021. In a new memo, he says the company will delegate remote work decisions to individual team leaders. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Updated below with additional details from internal FAQ.

Amazon no longer plans to bring corporate employees back to the office en masse in early January but will instead leave the decisions to individual team leaders at the director level, CEO Andy Jassy told employees Monday morning in an internal email.

This means there won’t be a companywide expectation on the number of days that corporate employees work in the office. Previously, Amazon set a “baseline” of three days a week in the office, and two days working remotely, as part of its preference for an “office-centric” culture.

Amazon’s new approach signals greater flexibility.

“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.”

One caveat: “At this stage, we want most of our people close enough to their core team that they can easily travel to the office for a meeting within a day’s notice,” Jassy wrote.

But this also comes with an exception: Amazon will let corporate employees work fully remote up to four weeks per year from any location in their country of employment, if they can do so effectively, Jassy wrote.

The change underscores the uncertainty created by the ongoing spread of COVID-19, including the surge in the highly contagious Delta variant in recent months.

Some companies have been pushing back their plans to bring employees back to the office. Microsoft, the region’s other tech giant, is leaving its return date open-ended for the time being. A study by the Redmond-based company showed that remote work has reduced communication among different Microsoft business groups.

These policy decisions are closely watched by other tech companies in setting their own policies, and by business owners and community leaders in the neighborhoods where large tech companies are based. Amazon’s shift away from the January return plan could create additional uncertainty for restaurants and other retailers in and around its large campus in Seattle’s South Lake Union and Denny Triangle neighborhoods, as well as nearby Bellevue, where Amazon has a growing presence.

An Amazon Prime delivery van and the original Amazon Go store at the base of the company’s Day 1 headquarters tower in downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

During an interview at the GeekWire Summit last week, Jassy addressed Amazon’s rocky relationship with the Seattle City Council, expressing hope for improvement but saying the company considers the broader Puget Sound region its “HQ1” headquarters now.

Amazon’s decision to delegate the decision to individual team leaders also illustrates the challenge of setting a companywide policy for the hundreds of thousands of corporate employees who are part of Amazon’s 1.3-million person workforce.

In his message, Jassy wrote that the company’s leadership team has met several times on the issue and agreed generally on three things: “First, none of us know the definitive answers to these questions, especially long term. Second, at a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best. And third, we’re going to be in a stage of experimenting, learning, and adjusting for a while as we emerge from this pandemic.”

He added, “All of this led us to change course a bit.”

Jassy noted that Amazon will be in a mode of “experimenting, learning, and adjusting for a while,” making it clear that the specifics aren’t set in stone. He said employees can expect to hear from their team leaders about their specific policies by early January, which was previously the timeframe for the larger return to the office.

He also recognized and thanked the vast number of Amazon workers who aren’t able to work remotely, including those in its fulfillment and transportation divisions.

Here is Jassy’s message to employees in full:

Subject: Updated guidance on where we work

Dear Amazonians,

I want to update you on how we’re continuing to evolve our thinking on where we work.

First, it’s worth reminding ourselves how challenging and unprecedented these past 20 months have been. We’ve never been through something like this before, and hope we never encounter it again. I’m appreciative and proud of how customer-focused and mission-driven the collective teams have been. It hasn’t been easy and not everything has gone perfectly, but the impact you’ve had on the lives of consumers, sellers, developers, enterprises, creators, and brands in helping them cope with this discontinuity has been remarkable.

As we start to think about the future, we’ve all been asking questions like, “When are we really going back to the office, what will that really be like, how will I allocate my time between the office and home, how will others do it, do we need to be working in person together every day to collaborate and invent best, and how do we build connections and culture best?” We’ve shared a couple of updates on this topic, first thinking we’d be back in the office in September 2021, and then by January 2022, with the suggestion that we should all try to be in the office at least three days a week. This guidance prompted questions, like, “Who decides which days, does the team need to be in the same days, are there certain functions or teams that can work more effectively at home vs the office (and vice versa),” and many more. We met several times as a leadership team to discuss these questions, and generally agreed on three things.

First, none of us know the definitive answers to these questions, especially long term. Second, at a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best. And third, we’re going to be in a stage of experimenting, learning, and adjusting for a while as we emerge from this pandemic. All of this led us to change course a bit.

For our corporate roles, instead of specifying that people work a baseline of three days a week in the office, we’re going to leave this decision up to individual teams. This decision will be made team by team at the Director level. 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. We’re intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days—this is for Directors to determine with their senior leaders and teams. The decisions should be guided by what will be most effective for our customers; and not surprisingly, we will all continue to be evaluated by how we deliver for customers, regardless of where the work is performed.

At this stage, we want most of our people close enough to their core team that they can easily travel to the office for a meeting within a day’s notice. We also know that many people have found the ability to work remotely from a different location for a few weeks at a time inspiring and reenergizing. We want to support this flexibility and will continue to offer those corporate employees, who can work effectively away from the office, the option to work up to four weeks per year fully remote from any location within your country of employment.

As almost all of you are hearing about this change for the first time, and will likely be eager to learn what your team’s plan is moving forward, I’d ask you to be patient with your leaders as it’ll likely take them a few weeks to develop and communicate their plan. We’re anticipating that you’ll hear from your leaders about these specific plans before January 3, which is the date we set previously for people to start returning to the office at least three days a week.

I also want to recognize our colleagues in Amazon’s fulfillment and transportation divisions whose roles aren’t as flexible as most of our corporate roles. The work of these teams remains critical to communities around the world (and to the company’s success), and the world has relied on them to deliver products to their doorsteps since the very beginning of the pandemic. There are other types of roles as well, such as those working in our AWS datacenters, physical stores, and those designing, developing, and testing new devices, who don’t have the flexibility to work remotely. I just want to thank these teammates for their passion, commitment, and continued dedication. It’s highly appreciated.

As mentioned earlier, these are unusual times and we’re all learning together what we believe is the best way to work together to make customers’ lives easier and better every day. And with it being so early in our mission, with lots of invention and change in front of us, you can bet that we will continue to adjust as we keep learning what makes most sense for our customers and teams.

Thank you for all your continued hard work.

-Andy

Update: An FAQ that accompanied the memo was published by Insider. GeekWire verified the FAQ’s authenticity and obtained a copy independently.

Among other details, the FAQ notes that “any personal move outside of a commuting distance to your assigned office will require VP approval.”

Here it is in full.

What is our new guidance for corporate roles?

  • Instead of specifying that people work a baseline of three days a week in the office, we’re going to leave this decision up to individual teams. This decision will be made team by team at the Director level.
  • 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. We’re intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days—this is for Directors to decide with their senior leaders and teams.
  • The decisions should be guided by what will be most effective for our customers; and not surprisingly, we will all continue to be evaluated by how we deliver for customers, regardless of where the work is performed.
  • The option to work up to four weeks per year fully remote (from a location within your country of employment) remains unchanged.

When will I know what my team is doing?

As almost all of you are hearing about this change for the first time, and will likely be eager to learn what your team’s plan is moving forward, we ask you to be patient with your leaders as it’ll likely take them a few weeks to develop and communicate their plan. We’re anticipating that you’ll hear from your leaders about these specific plans before January 3, which is the date we set previously for people to start returning to the office at least three days a week.

How will my team determine how often we need to be in the office?

Teams understand how they work best, and leaders will be intentional and thoughtful about how often they believe the team needs to be together to collaborate and get the best overall results for customers and the business. Directors will consider many factors when developing guidance for their organization, such as what work is simply more effective to tackle in-person together and what is more practical for handling remotely.

For those of us on teams that will be coming back more frequently to the office, when do we think that will start?

Teams are making these decisions for themselves. The buildings continue to be rigorously cleaned and safe for people to use. We’re seeing more and more people coming back to the office for meetings and collaboration. For the same reason we previously pushed the return to office guidance to January, we suspect that an increasingly larger number of people will feel more comfortable coming into the office as we get further away from the apex of the Delta variant.

Do I need to live near where my team is primarily located? And do I have to work from the same office as my team?

Each team has always had a site strategy – a set of locations where they have assigned office space, and an arrangement as to which teams work in which location. We expect senior leaders will continue to set the site strategy for their team. You will continue to have an assigned office location, as you have today.

To be successful in this new approach, it requires flexibility and we want to ensure teammates can collaborate in-person easily without having to fly or needing hotel accommodations. With this in mind, we expect most employees to live close enough to their assigned office location that they can easily travel to the office for a meeting within a day’s notice.

What if I prefer to only work from home?

If you are unable to work the way your team will be working, you can seek an exception with your Director. Assuming you live close enough to their core team that you can easily travel to the office for a meeting within a day’s notice, your Director will make the decision on the exception.

What if I prefer to not live near my assigned office?

This will be considered an exception, and any personal move outside of a commuting distance to your assigned office will require VP approval. Please refer to the global offsite work policy for more information on requesting an exception.

What if I was hired during the pandemic and was assigned to a location, but have not yet been able to move there?

Please work with your manager to relocate to your assigned location. We will approach the timing of that move with a high degree of flexibility and consideration for personal circumstances. If you are no longer able to relocate, you will need to follow the same office workplace exception process noted above, requiring VP approval.

What if I was working virtually prior to the pandemic or received an offsite workplace exception during the pandemic?

In either instance, your exception remains in place and no additional approval is needed.

When I return, will I still have a dedicated workspace/desk in the office?

If you have a dedicated workspace now and plan to regularly use it, you’ll continue to have your dedicated workspace. If you are primarily a remote employee, you will have an agile workspace (not a dedicated one) to collaborate with your team. This allows us to be frugal and better plan for the amount of corporate work space we know we can use effectively. GREF will work with all teams to ensure the right mix of fixed and agile seating throughout Amazon offices, and we may reassess dedicated workspaces as we learn more about our new patterns for working.

Is this change to a more flexible remote working policy permanent?

This new policy is our plan going forward. It may change or evolve as we all experience this new way of working together and continue to learn how best to serve our customers.

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