Archive | September 2015

Buy, Buy, Buy…Now, Now, Now

Do consumers help shape the work environment? In some ways, of course; yet, most of us as consumers feel pretty helpless about getting quality service most of the time. In that light, Amazon’s success, at least as of now, could not have been possible were it not for its ferocious customer-focus operations. So, consumers definitely have helped determine the working conditions at Amazon. The evolution of their customer services has been groundbreaking for sure, and as a consumer, I have been part of their equation. Will I continue my patronage after learning about their inner working conditions? Let me brood over that question.

Among the close-to 6,000 comments to the New York Time’s article on Amazon’s working environment, there were many who expressed outrage and immediately cancelled their “prime membership” with Amazon. Yet, I suspect the cancellation has not created even a ripple in Amazon’s sales bucket. That doesn’t mean that consumers should stop protesting or expressing their concerns and criticism of workplace conditions. However, as I have mentioned previously, there are plenty of other organizations and professions where grueling working conditions are the norm, whether employer- or self-imposed. How shall we consumers react to those other places and professionals?

Let’s look at the airline industry…need I say more?  In this case, it is the customers who have been loudly complaining about the ways we have been treated, from the headache-inducing contortioned act of figuring out how to cash in on the “loyalty” point system, enduring fees slapped on everything, to surviving the reduced-size carry-on… Would any of us give up flying? Can we? This is but one small area where “consumer power” is a joke.

blue bird

So, back to Amazon. In 2011, a series of reports about a warehouse in eastern Pennsylvania highlighted yet a different kind of grueling working conditions. Amazon warehouse workers at this location labored in temperatures of 100 degrees and above in the summer, with paramedics standing by in ambulances parked outside to treat workers who fainted, or to rush them to ER. After the exposé, Amazon installed air conditioning. Later, the joke on the street: Given that Amazon will eventually deploy robots to do the sorting and packing, and those robots will need A/C environment… If we consumers didn’t find that story appalling enough to cancel our business with Amazon, why would the company think that the latest brouhaha, generated by a NYTimes article, would lead to any significant downturn in its business volume? To me, the more interesting question is why we seem to be more exercised over the white collar working conditions than the 2011 warehouse story.

Let me be clear. I am not defending Amazon’s operations. The intensely competitive condition is not unique to Amazon. That doesn’t justify any of these types of operations in any professional field. But, what-can-we-do? Apple’s fans haven’t modified their enthusiastic purchasing power even after stories about their Chinese manufacturers’ horrible (and abusive) working conditions. Google hasn’t suffered because it has given the government massive amounts of data for surveillance purpose. Walmart’s business hasn’t been damaged despite myriad criticism from all corners of society. As I have mentioned before, consumer power in the globalized economy is very diffused. I can scream at the Verizon rep (I don’t, at least not without giving him/her a warning first and with the disclaimer that my tone was not directed at the rep), but none of my frustrations and criticism will ever make any dent in Verizon’s operations. But AT&T is even worse. Delta Airlines is on my “do not fly” list. But of course, if the place where I need to go is served only by Delta…sigh. Back to cable and signal carriers: Does anyone have enthusiastic love for any of them? Verizon? Comcast? AT&T?

The only recent episode where consumers actually seemed to have unified their voices concerned “net neutrality” with the FCC last summer. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Mr. Oliver’s 20+ minutes monologue on “net neutrality” was a gem; it was informative and energizing…and entertaining. No one can tell if the FCC website crash the following day, after Oliver’s segment, was due to Mr. Oliver’s “plea” for people to take action. Neither could we be certain that President Obama’s taking the consumer side carried much weight. However, FCC’s eventual decision in consumers’ favor was a pleasant surprise, after an almost nail-biting wait.

dahlia

So if Amazon keeps “improving” its delivery time, such as helping a New York customer to get an Elsa doll (based on movie “Frozen”) in 23 minutes, how do you begin to complain about that? Like, “Can you please deliver this doll in 23 hours instead?!” While this example may be about satisfying an upper class customer – and we don’t really know – Amazon’s offers of conveniences and speedy delivery might also provide much needed relief for many harassed parents or singles who work 80+ hours a week, or single parents who work 65 hours a week. However, is this really “innovation?” Please. Rovers on Mars are innovative; speedy delivery, even by a drone someday, is just an extreme outcome of badgering employees into “continuous improvement” and comes with a huge hidden cost.

If I lived in an area where I can have decent accesses to everything I need and desire, I would happily drop my business with Amazon. But I don’t, and so I just have to swallow my dismay and focus on other battles of my choosing…like everyone in this quick-paced world. What’s your priority?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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Socially Constructed Reality of Amazon’s Inner Working

The immediate responses to the lengthy New York Times’ article on the inner workings of white collar professionals at Amazon.com were almost as intense as article’s content. The 5,800+ readers’ comments are by far the most any New York Times’ article has ever elicited. The very next day, a post on LinkedIn provided a detailed rebuttal by Nick Ciubotariu, one of the system engineers/managers from Amazon. He emphasized that he wrote the piece totally on his own initiative. Amazon’s owner/CEO, Jeff Bezos, in addition to directing the employees to read Mr. Ciubotariu’s article, issued a public statement with the basic gist that the Times’ image of Amazon isn’t what he recognizes, and that all employees who ever witness the ugly stuff portrayed in the article should email him directly. (I wonder how many such emails he will actually receive? I don’t wonder that we’ll never know.)

I am not at all surprised that plenty of Amazon insiders would defend the company – otherwise cognitive dissonance would drive an employee crazy if she didn’t leave the company – nor am I surprised at the chorus of ex-Amazonians’ concurring with New York Times’ narrative of the company’s brutal working culture. What surprised me, sadly only a little, was how many people seemed to think that Amazon’s demanding working culture is unique to Amazon. Have they forgotten how Walmart locked in workers overnight? Do they not know the grueling hours medical interns (and sometimes doctors too) have to undertake? Of course, some people have pointed out that professionals in law, finance, or high tech also work 80+ hours a week, spending ½ of their vacation time chasing emails and fulfilling scheduled conference calls, or springing right back to work after a not-so-major surgery. Gee, is that supposed to make us feel better?!

What’s really depressing is that it doesn’t matter even when (some) companies offer generous policies for employees to take time off. If the organizational structure is such that people feel they have to stay competitive, most of them will forgo the offerings from such policies.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

What angers me most is the category of response that goes something like this: Work is not a child’s play; it’s hard. Deal with it. You shouldn’t expect a country club environment. Implicitly implied in the “country club environment” jab is that such a “cushy environment” would dull your mental state and lure you into shirking even more. This either-or dichotomous worldview is simply detrimental, full stop. Google, Apple, a few other tech giants, as well as some major players from other industries, are known for offering their employees a “country club” work environment or benefits, and we don’t hear, at least we haven’t heard, that their employees are just lazing about and taking advantages of their companies.

A second category of response that drives me batty is “data management.” While I am totally on the side of using evidence and data whenever possible, I object to the implied notion that as long as managers use data, all’s well and forgiven. Data is just information, which can be distorted. Decision, on the other hand, requires thinking, knowledge, wisdom and courage. Hiding behind data doesn’t justify pitting employees against each other, normalizing 80+ hours work weeks, and data definitely do not lend sympathy to those who suffer physically and emotionally at work and outside of work. Context gets lost in data. If data can dictate everything, let’s eliminate management.

I applaud Bezos’ efforts of making his “leadership principles” actionable; it is especially remarkable that he seemingly has instilled in most of his employees the desire to also act on those principles. However, how sustainable is the intensity of Amazon’s work culture? Put it another way, can Bezo’s goal of “perpetual start-up spirit” at his company go on and on? The image comes to mind is stretching an elastic band. I said that I don’t know the answer to this question in the previous post. I still don’t. However, drawing analogies from the laws of thermodynamics, continuous improvement (link) of anything, productivity, safety and security, competition, or perpetual growth requires an infinity of resources just to fuel it, and another infinity of resources to combat entropic deterioration. Yes, Amazon can afford to have a high turnover rate, because despite its reputed hypercompetitive environment, there are always people who thrive in that kind of atmosphere, or people who just need a job. For now. However, it cannot go on in perpetuity. What remain unanswerable for me are:

  • Is this high octane work environment what we will face all over the workplace in the not-so-distant future? One factor against this, is that a good portion of the millennial generation is rejecting such notion. But that’s just one factor.
  • What would Amazon be like in 10 years?

Next time, I will ponder on the consumer angle of “working inside of Amazon.” Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Suggested Readings:

Amazonians, Amabots, Amholes – Working for Amazon.com

It would have been better timing for me to post this workforce-oriented article on the Labor Day weekend, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my family. My attitude might be “old-fashioned” in the fast-paced tech world, and I am pretty sure that I would not survive for even one day working at places like Amazon.com. So I read the New York Times’ exposé on the workings inside Amazon – focused largely on white collar professionals – with mixed feelings.

Big animal with big horns.

Big animal with big horns.

The Times’ article is long, about 6,000 words, but the gist is an age-old issue manifested in the modern tech-savvy world: How to maximize employers’ utilization of employees’ labor or brain power. Decades ago, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, studying time and motion in labor-intensive work tasks, made assembly line work possible, and profitable. In modern service oriented industries, the race is on how to incentivize (I really hate this word, but, ah well…) professional brainiacs.  Amazon.com’s owner, Jeff Bezos, started his enterprise determined to not let the company slip into the typical corporate culture of bureaucracy, regimented rules and processes, or conventional practices of any kind. He intended, I am sure still intends, to instill in Amazon a “perpetual entrepreneurial” spirit. One can hardly argue with his “leadership principles,” such as customer obsession, hire and develop the best, or insist on the highest standards. Would anyone object to these ideas? Further, most people would react with, “Finally!, someone with vision.” However, like all statements de jour of vision and mission, and pledges of ethical behavior, the ultimate test lies in the execution. The New York Times’ article is about how Amazon has executed these “leadership principles.”

The article portrays the Amazon’s white collar environment as a high-octane, fiercely consumer-oriented, constantly striving for excellence, in which colleagues could be supportive, demanding, competitive, or back-stabbing. Nothing new, just magnified by 10 at Amazon. For instance, many who have worked at Amazon mentioned colleagues leaving meetings in tears, from the combative, confrontational tone of “critiquing” each other’s ideas. While this may not be universal across Amazon, how widespread should it be? would 10% of the work force – 180,000 employees – be acceptable? 20%? Working 60-80 hours a week is a norm; conference calls on Thanksgiving or other holidays are necessary at times; keeping up with emails while on vacations isn’t a rule but is expected… All true also in many other organizations; however, at Amazon, a person receiving an email at, say 10 PM might get a follow up text if that person doesn’t respond the email within an hour. People who take time off tending sick loved ones, taking care of one’s own chemotherapy and recovery process, or dealing with grief often find themselves being put on “performance improvement plan.” In other words, your time off is on you and will reflect against your career progress. Again, this isn’t unique to Amazon, just bigger per the company’s Amazonian size. As one former employee said, “When you are not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.” (NYTimes report)

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

Not surprisingly, many young people, especially singles with fewer commitments outside of work, thrive in Amazon’s work environment. Many also see their “short” stint – however one defines it — at Amazon as a stepping stone for better career opportunities elsewhere. And some leave the company feeling drained and needing a lengthy period to recover. Regardless of how the employees, former or current, handle the work environment, one thing seems clear; their work habit sticks with them, for better or for worse. For those who thrive on the intensity, they continue their “pursuit of higher performance” wherever they go, and thereby make themselves attractive to the next employer. Others who leave the company with a bad taste, may nevertheless appreciate the Amazon discipline. It’s not that the latter group doesn’t care for excellence, they just prefer excellence as manifest in a kinder spirit of their own definition and choosing.

Ultimately, my major question is: Would “perpetual start-up spirit” within one entity eventually morph into its own conventional form and choke off the very spirit it has tried to engender? I don’t know the answer…and, not knowing the answer would be another objectionable response at Amazon. Truly, I wouldn’t survive for even half of a day.

In the next post, I will summarize some reactions to this article…and of course add my own nickel’s worth. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

 

Note: “Amazonians” and “Amabots” are used internally by people working in Amazon, but “Amholes” are used by some outsiders.