Amazon will require its employees to work from the office at least three days a week, effective May 1.

CEO Andy Jassy told employees Friday the executive team made the decision earlier this week. The announcement comes after nearly three years of experimenting with different models of fully remote work and a hybrid system of in-person and remote work. 

The company observed, Jassy said, that it’s 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.” 

He pointed to the ease of asking impromptu questions on the way to lunch or in the elevator. It’s easier for leaders to teach when they have more people in the room and can assess whether the team is digesting the information as intended, he continued. Collaborating and inventing is more effective when colleagues can riff on one another’s ideas more freely, he said. 

“Our culture has been one of the most critical parts of our success the first 27 years, and I expect it will be in our next 27+ years as well,” Jassy wrote. “Strengthening it further is a top priority for the [senior team] and me.”

The announcement is a shift from Amazon’s current policy, put in place in the second half of 2021, that allowed leaders to decide for their teams where they would work. That policy applied only to Amazon’s corporate workforce; those in its warehouses didn’t have a remote option.

Internally, some workers feel Amazon should keep the flexibility in place, said one current employee who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job. That employee said they are still worried about the health risks of COVID-19. Some employees are concerned about the commute, the worker said, while others are on teams spread out across Amazon’s global network of offices and expect in-office collaboration will include virtual calls anyway.

“The company’s shooting themselves in the foot,” said the employee, who works in Seattle in Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division. 

That worker said employees found out via email that they would be expected to return to the office days after an all-staff meeting. “Leadership did not choose to announce it in a place where they would have had to say it out loud, in a place where they could hear the reaction from people,” the worker said.

The details of the policy aren’t ironed out, Jassy told employees in his letter, but Amazon wanted to share the change with employees as early as possible. There will be some exceptions to the return to office expectation, Jassy said, but “that will be a small minority.”

Back to the “heart of the city”

Amazon isn’t the only company changing its approach to remote work. Microsoft requires work to be done in person at least 50% of the time unless employees have permission from their managers. At the end of January, Starbucks employees within commuting distance of the coffee giant’s headquarters in Seattle were required to work from the office at least three days a week, as well.

Amazon’s decision to bring workers back “to the heart of the city is music to the ears of small businesses and arts organizations,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “We have the opportunity to use this great news to create a flywheel effort and attract more employees downtown.”

In January, downtown Seattle saw the second-highest level of daily worker traffic since the start of the pandemic, the association noted in its most recent monthly report tracking COVID’s effect on the economy.

Nearly 2 million visitors came downtown in January, up 15% from the same time period last year and representing 93% of the January 2019 visitor total. 

As more workers return to the office, the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce is calling on Mayor Bruce Harrell and the City Council to address public safety concerns and develop a retail strategy for downtown. 

“We are encouraging all employers to be intentional and thoughtful in their return-to-office decisions, and to ask: What do you really need as an employer, what do your employees need, what do your customers need and what does your community need?” said Rachel Smith, president and CEO of the Seattle chamber.

In Bellevue, Amazon’s return to office will be a “catalyst for stabilizing our commercial market,” said Joe Fain, president and CEO of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. 

On Friday, Jassy told employees Amazon’s real estate and facilities teams were working to “smooth out the wrinkles” and that the office experience would improve as the company’s plans for office setups continued to evolve.

“I think Amazon kind of leads the way here,” said Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association Seattle King County. Because Amazon occupies so much office space in Seattle and Bellevue and is one of the state’s largest employers, “they are a leader in the industry,” Kauffman said. “It’s a great first step that others will look to.”

Teams are “on the ropes”

At the end of last year, Amazon had 1.5 million full- and part-time employees, including those in its warehouses. Over the last few months, Amazon cut 18,000 corporate jobs, including 1,852 in Seattle and 448 in Bellevue. 

The layoffs may spark more compliance with Amazon’s return-to-office orders, said one current Amazon employee in Seattle who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job. One colleague who lost a lot of co-workers said they would comply because their team was already “on the ropes,” said the worker.

Amazon and other employers seem to have more leverage over employees than they did even a year ago, the worker said. “In 2021, the pendulum swung all the way to the workers, and then in 2022, really toward the last quarter of 2022, it … shifted back to the employers,” they said. 

Subhasish Bhattacharya, who works in Amazon’s advertising business in Seattle and had permission to be quoted through an Amazon spokesperson, has been in the office almost every day. The in-person interactions, the walk to work and a sense of purpose from working in the office have improved his life, he said.

On top of that, he said, Amazon’s culture is set up for in-person collaboration. He pointed Amazon’s practice of starting meetings by reading a document. When those meetings happen in person, people put their laptops away and just focus on the page in front of them. That’s been hard to replicate virtually, Bhattacharya said.

Still, there is some uncertainty about how the three-day minimum will be enforced, he said. Some people are wondering if Amazon may check their badge scans or whether they’d have flexibility in which days they come in. Will he be able to come in every day for two months, he wondered, and then work remotely from Hawaii for the next two weeks?

He expects there will be flexibility since the company often allowed remote work before the pandemic. “Once people experience that we have a level of flexibility and we can kind of manage our life along with return to office, we’ll feel a lot better,” he said.

Michelle Dixon, an Amazon manager based in Nashville, Tennessee, who was made available for an interview by an Amazon spokesperson, said she is excited to return to the office. “At the end of the day, I don’t think anything replaces face-to-face collaboration,” Dixon said. 

After Friday’s announcement, Dixon said she heard concerns from her team about schedule accommodations and time to figure out a return-to-work plan before it is enforced.

Since the announcement, employees have speculated in internal Slack messages what the change will mean for people who are working fully remote jobs and those who worked remotely for medical reasons, the AWS employee said. Others have asked what it means for Amazon’s carbon footprint and sustainability goals. 

On Friday, Jassy said Amazon knew “that for some employees, adjusting again to a new way of working will take some time. But I’m very optimistic about the positive impact this will have in how we serve and invent on behalf of customers, as well as on the growth and success of our employees.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this report.

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