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Seattle employers beckon workers back to the office. Downtown can’t wait

caption: Nathan Yeager owns two businesses near Amazon. He can't wait for workers to head back to the office.
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Nathan Yeager owns two businesses near Amazon. He can't wait for workers to head back to the office.
KUOW Photo/Monica Nickelsburg

The era of unlimited remote work is over, at least for some major Seattle employers.

Employees at Amazon offices across the country are expected to come in three days a week starting Monday, May 1. The policy comes a few months after Starbucks implemented a similar mandate.

The policies that Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies are rolling out are simple. Employees can pick two or three days a week to come into the office and work from home the rest. But the implementation is proving much more complicated.

Some employees are fighting the policies through advocacy and noncompliance, highlighting a new flashpoint in the corporate world. The pandemic caused the greatest disruption to office work in recent memory. Now employers are in an unprecedented position, navigating the tricky waters of the post-pandemic workforce.

Employees’ expectations and life circumstances changed during the pandemic. Many of them bristle at the idea of being forced back into the office when they’ve shown they can be productive at home. Others welcome the opportunity to collaborate and catch up with colleagues in person. Often it depends on the personality and type of job. But even workers who want to be in the office more sometimes complain that time could be optimized better, so they aren't spending in-office hours on Zoom calls. Often office infrastructure just isn’t set up to support hybrid work.

Experts say employers with in-office mandates are struggling to enforce their policies and reluctant to penalize workers who don’t comply.

KUOW spoke with workers and employers, consultants, and businesses that rely on commuters to find out if it’s possible to set hybrid work policies that work for everyone.

Outside Amazon

Before the pandemic, Amazon employees poured out of colorful office towers in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood at lunchtime.

Long lines queued up at the salad shops and upscale diners that surround Amazon’s signature Spheres.

caption: A quiet scene outside Amazon's Seattle headquarters.
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A quiet scene outside Amazon's Seattle headquarters.
Monica Nickelsburg / KUOW

Now, midday at Amazon’s headquarters is a much quieter scene. Some employees still mill about, but it’s obvious that thousands of the workers still assigned to the Seattle campus are working from home. Most of the benches around Amazon’s office towers sit empty despite a rare sunbreak in a chilly April day.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy says it’s time to change that.

In a letter to employees, Jassy said in-person work is critical for collaboration and mentorship. He also said the shift will help the businesses clustered around Amazon offices recover.

It’s a message those small business owners welcome.

“I hope Jassy doesn't back down,” said Nathan Yeager, the owner of the Great State Burger shop and King Leroy bar across the street from the Spheres.

“I love it, I think it's outstanding,” Yeager said of the return-to-office policy. “I think that everybody should get back to work and come support the businesses that are here for them. We built these for the community. We built them for the people in the area, and we want them to use it.”

Whether they will remains an open question. Yeager said that the neighborhood quieted down immediately after Jassy’s announcement. “Maybe people are staying at home as long as they can until they have to come back or maybe they're looking for other options,” he said.

It’s not easy to get Amazon employees to share their feelings on the mandate or any other topic on the record. Amazon has a policy that forbids employees from talking publicly about sensitive company information without approval. An Amazon spokesperson said the policy doesn't keep employees from discussing their workplace experience, but several workers KUOW approached for this story cited the policy as their reason not to speak on the record.

That hasn’t stopped employees from protesting the return to office policy internally. Nearly 30,000 Amazon employees have joined a Slack channel dedicated to protesting the mandate, according to reports from The New York Times and others.

Amazon’s communications team did offer up some employees to share their thoughts on the policy. Suresh Seneviratne says his team has been voluntarily going into the office three days a week for the past six months.

"The approach has been very human centric, very understanding and truthfully, I can tell you, the resistance has softened so much," he said. "I think our colleagues, globally, are starting to be like, 'OK, this is something we could do.'"

'Chaotic and uncertain'

Starbucks is also facing vocal opposition to its policy from some of its corporate workers. About 40 employees petitioned leadership to rethink its three-day-per-week mandate when it was implemented earlier this year.

Amanda Stockbridge, a senior product designer for Starbucks with two small children, said she built her routine around working from home most days.

“It felt very chaotic and uncertain,” Stockbridge said when KUOW approached her for this story.

She said she wished Starbucks had taken more time to stock the office with supplies and work out logistical issues, like desk sharing.

“We don't have desks assigned, so you either have to reserve one ahead of time or just try to find a place to sit,” she said. “On busy days, you'll end up on a couch anyway, staring down at your laptop.”

Stockbridge said better planning and throwing in some incentives, like parking or snacks in the office, would have made the policy easier to swallow.

For now, she’s doing her best to make it two days per week.

A Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement that the policy, "has allowed us to refocus on the art of collaboration."

"Many partners (employees) didn’t have the privilege of working remotely, and fairness is part of Starbucks return to office policy," the spokesperson said.

Advice from the ‘office whisperer’

The hybrid work landscape may be uncharted territory but already a cottage industry of experts has sprung up to advise companies on the transition. Chief among them is Gleb Tsipursky, a corporate decision making consultant who some have dubbed “the office whisperer.”

Tsipursky said the rebellion among Starbucks and Amazon workers is a natural consequence of approaching hybrid mandates the wrong way.

“What you can see with Amazon is that they suddenly and surprisingly, without any preparation, announced a three-day return-to-work policy after, for over a year, saying that they will allow everyone to work flexibly,” Tsipursky said.

Had Amazon or Starbucks been his clients, Tsipursky would have advised conducting focus groups and surveys to gauge employee sentiment and allow them to feel heard. He also suggests employers use carrots, rather than sticks, to get employees to return. Amazon and Starbucks have not said how they'll get employees to comply with their policies.

“What you want to do is give people a good reason to come to the office,” he said. “I can't stress that enough. That is the only thing you can actually do, if you don't want people to resist … disengagement, morale issues, resistance, you'll have all of that if you try to force people to come to the office without a good reason.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean bar carts and cold brew on tap, but rather the aspects of office work that benefit from being in person.

Tsipursky suggests companies use a formula of sorts. Figure out which tasks employees can do as well, or better, at home, like sending emails, writing code, and doing research. Whatever percent of their job those tasks comprise — he said it's about 85% on average — should be the percentage of their week employees are allowed to work from home.

Employers can require their workers to come in the remaining time, but they should ensure that in-person days are dedicated to work that benefits from being face-to-face. He said that time should be spent on important conversations, collaborative brainstorming, and mentorship, all of which benefit from the body language and spontaneity that are difficult to convey over Zoom. Tsipursky said this shift will require employers to rethink everything from office layouts to management styles.

“You schedule things in the office that actually are best done in the office,” he said. “You'll have the vast majority of people happily complying with coming to the office, especially if you make the office a nice place to be.”

Some Seattle-area companies are already adopting a looser return-to-office strategy. Microsoft announced last year it expects employees to spend about 50% of their time in the office but defers to managers to set schedules with their teams. Expedia Group has a similar policy.

Redfin just announced a two-day-per-week mandate starting July 11, but only for employees within 20 miles of an office. Meanwhile, Zillow is committing to remote work indefinitely, to the dismay of commercial real estate developers and some city leaders.

The different approaches prove there’s no playbook for this new era of office work. The corporate workforce is undergoing a grand experiment, just as it did during the pandemic when thousands of workers packed up their laptops and headed home indefinitely. The results of that experiment will have wide ranging impacts, not just on workers but the entire ecosystem built around folks heading into the office.

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