When your workplace culture is described as ‘bruising’, ‘brutal’ or ‘punishing’, you might have a problem. By now, most people have read or at least heard of the New York Times’ piece about workplace culture at e-retailer Amazon, and the picture it paints is bleak.
In a nutshell, over-achieving workers toil for long hours at the expense of their personal lives and general wellbeing until burnout and stress take their toll. Current and former staff members interviewed for the piece discussed the punishing and “unreasonably high” expectations the company places on its employees in the name of productivity and progress. One former Amazon human resources director even described the annual culling of under-performing employees as “purposeful Darwinism”.
Although this article shocked and appalled many people, the reality is that this kind of hyper-competitive environment is nothing new – the financial, law, medical, and banking sectors are no stranger to high-stress, always-on workplaces. It’s a scene that’s becoming all too familiar in many white-collar industries, which begs the question: Where are the boundaries for promoting employee productivity?
Perhaps the reason that this issue is felt so strongly in businesses like Amazon and other growing tech companies is that they are heading into unchartered territory. Most began as small start-ups where intense competition demanded employees put a hold on work-life balance, but as businesses grow and expand this model becomes unsustainable.
“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, ground-breaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” says top Amazon recruiter Susan Harker in the New York Times piece. In the drive for performance, Amazon squeezes the most from its employees by breaking down employee motivations and habits to build them back up.
For an industry that is built on an ethos of innovation and singularity, the Amazon model sounds like it fits better with the Industrial Revolution – part awe-inspiring, part frightening. However, some employees thrive under this workplace culture and respond well to, even enjoy, the intense drive to push their limits. It’s also successful, as evidenced by the company’s massive expansion of products and services in the past few years. But it’s not the only tech company seeing results from a driven, high-performance culture.
About 1300 kilometres south of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, a different kind of experiment in employee productivity is taking place. In stark contrast to Amazon’s no-frills office culture, the perks arms race of Silicon Valley is taking the employee focus mentality to another level.
Where Amazon offers no frills, places such as Netflix, Microsoft and Google are falling over each other to see who can offer the best parental leave benefits. It’s trendy to provide employees catered lunches, onsite fitness centres or swanky lounge areas. On the surface, these perks are attractive and show the value a company places on keeping employees happy. And happy employees are productive employees. But the line between work life and home life is blurred.
Stories like these breathe new life into the ongoing debate about what makes a great workplace culture, and few places have managed to strike that balance between healthy and high performing. The real question is what works better: the carrot or the stick? It’s an ongoing quandary, and as the arbiters of workplace culture and performance, no department understands this as much as human resources.
Taking care of employees is a priority, and if you think that trends like these have no bearing on your workplace practices, think again. Silicon Valley’s workplace policies have a habit of trickling down to other industries. In an interview with Wired, Bruce Elliott from the Society for Human Resource Management in the US said that tech companies have an outsized influence on workplace initiatives.
If Amazon is one extreme, and other Silicon Valley companies are another, perhaps the answer to what works to inspire productivity lies somewhere in the middle. As companies evolve and establish unique identities, it’s up to HR departments to step up and frame a culture that works for all parties.