Amazon orders staff back to the office: Will others follow suit?

Flexible working has been one of the longest-lasting impacts of the pandemic, with many office workers now given the freedom to work from home.

However, in a sign this might be coming to an end, ecommerce behemoth Amazon demanded its staff return to the office at least three days per week.

The change has not gone down well with some Amazon workers. According to screenshots viewed by CNBC, some employees are already pushing back against the mandate, with 14,000 workers creating a slack channel to voice their concerns and advocate for remote working.

The employees have drafted a petition urging Amazon to reconsider the new policy, claiming it “runs contrary” to the company’s positions on diversity and inclusion, affordable housing, and sustainability.

“We, the undersigned, call for Amazon to protect its role and status as a global retail and tech leader by immediately cancelling the return-to-office policy and issuing a new policy that allows employees to work remotely or more flexibly, if they choose to do so, as their team and job role permits,” a draft of the petition states.

But why is Amazon calling employees back into the office? Will other tech and retail giants follow in its footsteps? And how will tech talent react?

Why now?

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told staff that getting back to the office would “strengthen” its culture and enhance collaboration and invention among its workforce.

However, tech entrepreneur and former executive vice president of software developer InMoment Steve Herbert thinks the online giant may have an ulterior motive.

“I suspect the straightforward reason is because it wishes to exert more control over their staff,” he says.

“It is well known that it has a culture of micromanagement; we have all heard Amazon fulfilment staff complain about their overbearance, from delivery drivers to warehouse workers spending too long in the toilet.

“However, another crucial factor is that all major tech firms have expensive real estate, which isn’t being used when workers remain at home.”

Indeed, Jassy expressed hope that the mandate would not only make the most of Amazon’s office space, but provide a boost to “thousands of small businesses” located around its urban headquarters and the “dozens of cities around the world where our employees go to the office.”

Prior to the pandemic, tech companies accounted for a lot of leasing activity in major cities across the world.

In fact, global tech firms represented more than a third of the largest 15 office leases in the US in 2019, according to CoStar data. At the time, offices for major firms including Amazon, Google, Apple and Meta collectively totaled more than 5 million square feet.

With significant investments made on office space, it is understandable that tech giants are keen to make the most of this as social distancing becomes less of a concern.

How is the industry reacting?

Amazon is certainly not alone in calling workers back to the office. Last month, Snap Inc, parent company of Snapchat, revealed it was phasing out its remote working policy and would require staff to be in the office at least 80% of the time.

Similarly, in November last year, Twitter owner Elon Musk scrapped the social media giant’s hybrid model and told employees they must return to the office five days a week – although he is understood to have since softened his stance.

However, many corporate and tech employees have learnt to adapt and thrive under the hybrid working model.

Looking at the wider tech and ecommerce industry, office mandates remain a delicate balancing act for companies that risk alienating employees and losing top talent in an already competitive marketplace.

For example, online grocery specialist Ocado Group told Charged that it is “enabling colleagues who can to work flexibly where possible” while encouraging employees to “come together to collaborate” in the office for at least 40% of their working time.

“In addition we have set the month of August and half of December to be fully work from home as an option,” an Ocado spokesperson said.

“During the pandemic we also launched a ‘work from anywhere’ policy permitting Ocado Group colleagues to work remotely for up to one month per year. This was an extremely successful initiative, which we have maintained.”

With other companies still adopting a more flexible approach, Amazon’s forced mandate has certainly provoked a mixed reaction.

Digital entrepreneur and VERB Brands co-founder Ben Askins tells Charged that Amazon’s new policy is a “terrible idea” and believes the forced mandate could actually hinder productivity and morale.

However, it is not alone. Askins says: “From business leaders I speak to there is a growing popularity for enforcing days in the office which I think is short sighted and a byproduct of trying to return to the ‘old normal’ for those in senior positions.

“There are no numbers to suggest that making people return to the office has any positive upswing in productivity. However, there are a lot of employees who are actively dissatisfied with companies forcing them to come to the office.

“I think a lot of companies will lose a lot of good employees if they go down this route of starting to impose three days or more. By all means encourage them to come in on specific days every now and again, but a blanket ‘you have to be here for most of the week’ is going to go down badly.”

Askins also believes that companies that adopt a more flexible approach will have an edge in the sourcing of talent.

For a company that “prides itself” on selling cloud platforms (AWS) as a means of shifting companies from on-premise hardware, data engineer David Alderton also argues that Amazon is making a backwards move.

“Allowing employees to make use of their own cloud platforms to work remotely would be more in line with the their commercial messaging, while allowing employees to work more efficiently,” he tells Charged.

“If there are concerns about productivity then they need to reconsider their hiring standards, management styles or consider targeting their concerns at those problem employees only.”

How will tech talent respond? 

“In the current market, tech talent can pick and choose who they work for based upon their working conditions and benefits,” Herbert says.

“These days in tech, micromanagement is frowned upon. People prefer to be given purpose and led by inspiring leaders, not managed. They can go where the money is and pretty much dictate where they will work.”

For those working at the cutting edge of tech and online retail, flexibility and the ability to work globally are key factors to consider.

Quest Search & Selection retail recruitment specialist Samantha Silva tells Charged that, although it may come as a shock after years of hybrid working, it is becoming more commonplace for companies to set office mandates.

“Only recently we have heard tech scale up businesses such as Getir are asking all colleagues to return to the office full time,” she says.

“As part of collaborating, working, culture defining and in some instances productivity, face-to-face office working can be a good thing.”

However, she believes tech talent may still seek out opportunities with businesses that offer flexibility, particularly if companies dictate which days they must go in.

“When talking to candidates, people are more interested in two days in an office, with a higher proportion of time at home. This also allows for companies to consider talent that are not limited by location, as two days is seen as doable with a longer commute,” she adds.

Solis Recruitment founder Jay Thandi has found that many tech workers are eager to get back to the office, although on a hybrid basis, for a number of factors — including optimal working conditions, socialising with colleagues and mental wellbeing.

“A lot of tech, digital and ecommerce candidates we speak with do prefer hybrid working. They enjoy the flexibility of knowing they can work from anywhere, but also find office time meaningful and valuable to build cohesion across departments,” he says.

Tech employees are not a monolith and Thandi also acknowledges that sentiment around returning to the office “really depends on the person”.

“Some tech talent will relish the chance to be back in the office, to be around friends and colleagues and take motivation and inspiration from being back in that environment. Others will dread this as they have a better experience working from home,” he says.

Alderton believes that tech firms and online retailers are best placed to allow their employees to work remotely, primarily because they “possess the technology and digital expertise to facilitate this”.

“There are huge opportunities for remote work, especially in specialist technical roles and this isn’t limited to opportunities in the UK either,” he adds.

“Employees are open to work for foreign companies from the comfort of their home in the UK, and there are many progressive employers here in the UK too.

“I think for the most part, tech talent will be concerned at such regressive moves back into the office especially due to the added stress, time and cost incurred in the face of higher cost of living and inflation.”

Although there are benefits to working in the office, tech specialists have gotten used to being able to choose a working model that best suits their own role and lifestyle. Businesses must tread carefully before setting strict rules on how employees should work or risk losing top tech talent.

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