Monday, August 24, 2015

Amazon does not have to be hard on people to succeed

Over the past week, the web has been lit up with commentary about the New York Times article that detailed the harsh work environment for white-collar employees of the company. My reaction to the expose was to shake my head. I don't believe that people need to be treated poorly in order to produce good results. Judging from the Times' article, motivation at Amazon appears to consist of all stick and no reward. The article mentioned that employees often pay their own travel expenses. I can hope that people are compensated well, but money is a poor reward for psychological abuse.

I don't think Jeff Bezos, the grand wizard of internet commerce, needs to conduct endless Zimbardo-esque experiments upon his staff in order to innovate and crush competitors. 

The article detailed a workplace culture defined by competition and a relentless demand to work constantly.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.
Amazon employees are held accountable for a staggering array of metrics, a process that unfolds in what can be anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews, held weekly or monthly among various teams. A day or two before the meetings, employees receive printouts, sometimes up to 50 or 60 pages long, several workers said. At the reviews, employees are cold-called and pop-quizzed on any one of those thousands of numbers.

The company insists that its constant culling of its employee herd allows them to keep top talent and bring the best out of people. I understand that people can be motivated by the chance to succeed in a demanding environment. They want to succeed where others failed and be part of something big.

And Amazon is big.  

But it's not big because office workers are living in a cross between Office Space and the Hunger Games.

Amazon is a big company with a pandemic-like market share of online shoppers because it's a company that treats customers well (always has) and offers a tremendous selection of goods at very competitive prices. It allows someone to conveniently acquire what they need without going around to stores. They can usually find what the need and order it from the comfort of home. It's also a goldmine for product reviews when you're trying to figure out what you'd like to buy.

I've been a customer of Amazon since the 1990s when I discovered I could find any book I wanted there.

These core values that the company gives customers have been in place since the 1990s and early Naughties. I've not really noticed any incredible innovations or features that make it worth inflicting 50-page reviews on a worker.

Its Kindle does not possess the greatest market share among ebook readers because it's so much more awesome than other tablets. It has tremendous market penetration among readers because it was on the Amazon home page for YEARS. It was put under the noses of the largest audience of online-shopping book readers in the country. No one needs to work 80 hours a week to achieve that. You just needed to build a huge online book store at the beginning of the internet and be smart about it. Did it take 80-hour weeks to achieve that? I suppose it did, but it probably was not necessary. Work studies show that longer hours lead to more mistakes and time spent fixing mistakes. 

I'll admit that Amazon is honest about its aggressive work place. In reality Amazon reflects the ethos guiding most companies, which is to treat employees like garbage. They're just meat to squeeze juice from and if they don't like it, they'll bring in some new fish to shoot in a barrel.

Will this make me stop shopping at Amazon?

I've been asking myself this question since learning about the depredations inflicted on its warehouse workers. I'd like to take the high road and eschew Amazon shopping, but the truth is I don't know of any retailer companies that can meet my diverse needs that actually treat people well. I don't really have any conscientious options for shopping.

So, I'll buy things through Amazon when I need to.

I sell lots of things at Amazon too. My books, ebooks, and audiobooks have been selling there for years, and Amazon is one of my sources of income. Thankfully I don't actually have to work for them, but I have no delusions about them treating their suppliers any better. Cuts to my share of sales will likely be inevitable in the future. Bezos, after all, is famous for saying "Your margin is my opportunity."

The company already punishes my products with reduced visibility because I do not make my novels exclusive to Amazon. I choose to sell my creations at other retailers too. I believe in making my novels available to everyone regardless of where they shop. And some of my readers live in countries not directly serviced by Amazon, so that's another reason not to pledge my allegiance. If I was exclusive to Amazon, I'd be in shoes much too similar to those employees sobbing after an evaluation.

I can't agree with this "bruising workplace" as the Times called it. Think of all the good ideas that got crushed by some posturing asshole who was trying to make his stats? Think of all the talent that avoids that place precisely because it is the opposite of nurturing.

Unfortunately Amazon's extreme example only reflects the work culture in the United States. Most people hate their jobs. They're overburdened, underpaid, and in perpetual fear of being laid off.

Due to its size, Amazon enhances the legitimacy of the Scrooge-model of employment. Competitors will think "We need to be more like Amazon" and impose more pressure upon their own workers.

I'm glad I'm self employed.

Source: Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

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