Amazon doubling down on RTO (return to office) - exclusive

Originally published on 16 March 2023.

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One month ago - on 17 February - Amazon announced its new remote work policy. From 1 May, employees are expected to spend at least three days per week in the office.

I shared insider details on the unprecedented pushback that this new policy has received. A big part of the pushback came because of three big reasons:

  1. Many employees accepted offers from Amazon with the understanding that their position will be full remote. About 30-40% of Amazon’s current staff was hired in the past 18 months, based on an engineer I talked with, looking at the “Old Fart” ranking - a system that shows what percentage of employees were hired after you.
  2. Plenty of employees are not within commuting distance from their assigned office.
  3. From 2021, directors had the autonomy to decide if their teams worked as remotely, hybrid, or in-office. When hiring employees, directors often assumed that this setup would stay permanently.

At the time of publishing, more than 30,000 employees signed a petition asking for this new RTO policy be reversed, and more than 32,000 people joined an internal Slack channel to protest against the RTO policy change, I confirmed with a current software engineer. As we covered in The Scoop #39, this petition was addressed to the S-Team and reads:

“We, the undersigned Amazonians, petition to reverse the RTO initiative announced Friday, February 17, 2023, and propose Amazon reinstate the remote-work policy that empowers teams and individuals to determine and adopt the work style that works best for them - remote, hybrid or in-office.”

Engineers I talked with were hopeful that Amazon’s leadership team - the S-Team - would reverse the policy or at least soften it. Until now, the S-Team did not communicate further about these changes.

Until today, that is. Today - on 16 March - Amazon updated their FAQs about RTO. There is no softening of the policy: Amazon is doubling down on it. The company confirmed that building assignments for employees will be published by 14 April - referring to the building those employees need to commute to. They also published answers to 28 frequent questions, including these (emphasis mine):

Q: “If I now live far away from my assigned office, do I need to come into the office 3 days a week once my building is ready?”

A: “Yes. We expect all employees to return to their assigned office at least three days a week when their building is ready. If there is a reason in which you cannot do so, please discuss with your manager to explore options such as allowing extra time until you can relocate back to your assigned area of transferring to another team near your location.”

The question about when your team is remote but you are not:

Q: “What if I’m the only or one of just a few people from my team in the office I’m assigned to - do I still need to go in at least three days a week?”

A: “Yes. We believe that employees are much more likely to understand our unique culture and become part of it if they are surrounded by other Amazonians in person, even if not on their immediate working team. We encourage managers to work towards having as many of their team members together in one physical location as possible. We recognize that this will take time, and in some cases, managers may choose to make an exception and designate certain individuals as remote, but this will be a very small minority of the company overall.”

Sales and Customer Support will probably be exempt from the RTO requirement: however, employees do not yet have details on exactly what teams. For people outside Sales and Customer Support - such as Engineering - exceptions need to be requested to work remotely. If the exception is not related to a disability accommodation: this exception requires S-Team approval - which, practically, means an SVP or VP-level approval.

On exceptions:

Q: "Are there exceptions to returning to the office three days a week? If I'm unable or unwilling to return to the office, how do I request an exception to work remotely?"

A: "Yes. As there were before the pandemic, there will be exceptions for certain roles and functions that require remote status. For example, some in sales or customer support have historically had remote-working status and that will stay the same moving forward. If your role or function does not allow for remote-work status, you can request an exception to work remotely by starting with your manager to discuss your situation (...) An S-team member approval will be required for remote work status."

Talking with engineering managers at Amazon (called SDMs here), those SDMs  did not have details on how exceptions work, and neither did their directors. Engineering managers I talked with hope to get more clarification on the exceptions process later on.

So what is the mood like inside Amazon? Grim, talking to engineers. On Slack, people are talking about resigning, and the topic of unionizing is coming up more frequently. Amazon is known for being a company that wants to stop unionization by every means possible - so bringing up unionization - or, as engineers, I talked to called it: ‘the forbidden U word’ is an unusually strong response.

The same engineers upset about the RTO policy here to stay are also talking about canceling their Prime memberships or boycotting Amazon.

What I hear from all of this is that many engineers find their situation hopeless: I am talking about people living too far from an office to make their commute practical. These people have no other option than to apply for a remote work exception - and hope they get it from the S-Team. Failing that: it will be a very long commute from May or having to find another job and resign.

What does Amazon’s approach signal for other companies? I consistently pay attention to what Amazon does, as the company has read the market well for the past decades: both from a business perspective, and also from how to attract and retain software engineers - doing this in a frugal way.

The fact that Amazon’s S-Team did not blink, and refuses to soften the return to work policy signals that they either don’t expect much attrition, or have calculated with additional attrition. Given that the company is in the middle of cutting 18,000 positions, there’s a fair chance that this RTO policy is a way to further increase attrition.

At the same time, looking at the market, it’s hard not to ask the question: if people want to leave, where will they leave to? Meta just announced more cuts - and closing all 5,000 open positions. Dozens of tech companies have put similar, 3-day return to office policies in place starting from December, when an RTO wave started, as we covered in The Scoop #34.

There are, of course, still companies out there that are hiring for either full-remote or remote-friendly roles: a large number of startups and scaleups, and some better-known tech companies like Shopify, Spotify, GitLab or Automatic.

Still, I cannot help but observe that we have passed “peak remote work,” and workplaces that have been office-first before the pandemic: most of them are reverting to a hybrid setup of 3 days per week in the office.

Just like Meta has hinted of doing exactly this, likely preparing for a policy change, also to target three days per week in the office.

This was one out of the five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  • Meta: a second round of layoffs and restructuring to come. The tech giant announced it will let another 11,000 staff go, and is also closing 5,000 open positions. I talked with software engineers there to get a sense of the mood inside the company, and what they expect will happen. Exclusive.
  • Is ChatGPT causing panic within Big Tech? Large-scale language model ChatGPT is taking the industry by storm, despite Big Tech companies having invested heavily for years in natural language processing (NLP) teams. Are these teams now panicking, and can we expect Big Tech to increase or decrease investment in NLP? Analysis.
  • How much do full-remote take-home exercises pay? During their interview process, several full-remote companies ask software engineers to complete take-home exercises, which can take several days to complete. Among companies which pay candidates for their time, what are the rates? I gathered details from engineers. Exclusive.

Read the full issue here.

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