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Amazon wants employees back at the office, announces hybrid plan

caption: Employees walking in Amazon's Seattle headquarters.
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Employees walking in Amazon's Seattle headquarters.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Amazon is the latest Seattle-area company to shift its work plans and order employees back into its offices under a hybrid home-remote model.

In a letter to Amazon employees, CEO Andy Jassy said the company has been able to observe working habits and models ever since the pandemic sent many office workers home. Among the lessons learned during that time, Jassy said that it is "easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues."

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"When you’re in-person, people tend to be more engaged, observant, and attuned to what’s happening in the meetings and the cultural clues being communicated. For those unsure about why something happened or somebody reacted a certain way, it’s easier to ask ad-hoc questions on the way to lunch, in the elevator, or the hallway; whereas when you’re at home, you’re less likely to do so. It’s also easier for leaders to teach when they have more people in a room at one time, can better assess whether the team is digesting the information as intended; and if not, how they need to adjust their communication."

Jassy said that there may be some exceptions to the rule, but Amazon's new policy is that employees be in the office at least three days per week. The policy begins on May 1.

In his letter, Jassy not only makes an argument for bringing employees back into the office, he points to the business communities around Amazon's offices. He states, "this shift will provide a boost for the thousands of businesses located around our urban headquarter locations in the Puget Sound, Virginia, Nashville, and the dozens of cities around the world where our employees go to the office."

A "boost" is also the word Seattle Metro Chamber President & CEO Rachel Smith used in in a statement following Amazon's announcement Friday. Smith said the move will "provide a much-needed boost for Seattle’s local businesses and help reinvigorate downtown."

"Employers like Amazon are — rightly — recognizing and honoring that employees are placing a premium on flexibility, while at the same time understanding that humans are an essential element of dynamic workplaces, downtowns, and neighborhoods," Smith said.

Sawyer the dog

The announcement comes less than a week after Amazon ran a seemingly contradictory commercial called "Saving Sawyer" during the Super Bowl. The ad shows people working and learning from home through the perspective of Sawyer, the dog.

Sawyer loves remote work, as the humans keep him company with treats and attention. But, when the family transitions back to the office and school, Sawyer watches the family leave through the window. He is bored with no one to play with and sadly lays on the floor.

Soon, sadness becomes mischief, and he takes his feelings out on the house. Sawyer decides to be a “bad dog” by destroying the couch, remote, lamp, and more. Finally, the family orders a dog kennel from Amazon. But the kennel is not for Sawyer to be locked away during the day. It's for Sawyer’s new canine rescue friend. The commercial ends with Sawyer and his new furry buddy sleeping on the daughter's bed.

Amazon's new work policy would force humans to leave their pets, like Sawyer, at home for three days of the week.

The 90-second spot could have cost up to $21 million. It costs an average of $7 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl, according to Forbes. An estimated 113 million people watched the big game, according to Nielsen.

An Amazon spokesperson reached out to KUOW after this article was initially published and commented that the company has dog-friendly offices which allow employees to bring their dogs to work. Amazon says that it has 10,000 dogs registered with its human resources department at more than 100 company buildings in the United States and Canada. It expects to expand the dog-friendly perk to 20 more corporate buildings in 2023, including in Australia.

Seattle-area companies move back into the office

Amazon's back-to-the-office announcement comes about a month after Starbucks made a similar decision. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote a letter to employees, arguing that remote work threatens the culture of "human connection" that Starbucks strives for. After Jan. 30, Starbucks employees were ordered to be in the office three days a week. Two of those days must be on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Both Amazon's and Starbucks' announcements come roughly a year after Microsoft and Expedia, made their decisions to emerge from pandemic remote work. Microsoft fully reopened its Redmond headquarters in early 2022, and said that it would be standard for employees to work from home part of the time (preferably less than 50%). Expedia's policy was similar.

By the end of June 2022, however, The Seattle Times noted that Microsoft employees were not flooding back to their campus desks as the company's policy aimed for. Also during this time, Microsoft released studies it ran on the effects of remote work and hybrid work that happened during the pandemic. The basic takeaway was that bosses hated remote work, but it was great for employees.

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"We strongly believe that hybrid is the future," Jaime Teevan, chief scientist technical fellow at Microsoft research, told Seattle Now in March 2022. "There is no going back. I don't want to give up my sweatpants."

"One of the reasons we're going into the office, that is pretty universal, is for social connections, those hallway chats that we used to have," Teevan said.

The future is remote?

As companies have begun to bring workers back into the office, the moves have not come without criticism. Remote work, and hybrid models, have become attractive to many workers who opted to move into more comfortable, and affordable living conditions amid the years of remote pandemic precautions. It's enough of an incentive that some people have accepted lower pay in order to work remotely, NPR has reported.

"These are the realities of 21st century working," Anne Helen Petersen told KUOW's Seattle Now last year. "You can vote for the future, or you can try to hold on to those old ways of working from the past, and then pay a consulting company in five years to tell you to get with the future. Those are your options."

Petersen is co-author of "Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home," and argues that the future of work will be remote or a version of hybrid work — being in the office 100% of the time will become the way of the past.

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