For a busy mom, Amazon Prime is a great convenience. To be able to order something — anything — and have it at my house in two days has saved me time and stress. But after reading a recent New York Times article on Amazon’s culture, I learned that my convenience has come at an ugly personal cost for those who work at the company.
Behind the innovation is apparently a company that considers employees disposable and their work/life balance unnecessary. The New York Times writers describe Amazon as an enormously adversarial place. They discovered that employees who face difficult life moments, such as dealing with a serious illness, are offered not empathy and time off, but rebukes that they are not focused enough on work. A normal work week is 80 to 85 hours in an unrelenting pressure-cooker atmosphere.
While newly enlightened customers are pulling back on their Amazon spending, I’m wondering if CEO Jeff Bezos wants to change the company culture and how he would go about doing it. So far, all he has said is, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”
Experts say that when leaders in an organization recognize that their current culture needs to transform to attract or keep talent and get clear on where they want to be next, change can occur. But change is not pretty, and change is not easy.
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When one South Florida company realized the problems it faced were related to culture, it set out to create change. Only four years ago, employees at Yellow Pepper, which makes mobile banking applications for Latin American banks, were spread around the world, leaders rarely came out of their offices and collaboration was rare. “Employees worked in silos, and there were inefficiencies,” says CEO Serge Elkiner, who recognized the culture needed an overhaul.
“We put a lot of thought into what culture we wanted,” Elkiner says. “We felt it starts with environment and talent.” The company had relocated from Ecuador to Miami and changed to an open layout that eliminated individual offices and put more focus on interaction. Elkiner hired employees who agreed to collaborate on projects and take more responsibility and accountability for getting the job done and keeping customers happy. He says employees signed on to work longer hours but would be rewarded by the right perks (a good salary, stock options, unlimited vacation, flexible hours).
Leaders fired employees who didn’t fit their vision. “You have to have the right people with the right attitude,” Elkiner says, adding that the culture change took patience and communication: “Leadership is a huge part of what makes the culture, but it’s the managers that bring it down to the lower levels.”
At big and small organizations, leaders are struggling with how to achieve a culture of innovation, but one where employees also feel valued. As one South Florida executive explained to me: “Often the pace of business is so fast that managers lose sight of employee needs and the culture they are creating. When the needs of customers are a high priority, employees sometimes pay the price.”
Sarah Miller Caldicott, who has studied and authored books on innovation and collaboration, says innovative companies that hold on to their employees make work them hard, but also create a collegial environment where employees want to work hard because they like what they do and want to contribute to their team. If that is not happening, a first and painful step toward culture change is self-examination, she says. You have to know why you want to change your culture.
For an increasing number of companies, the “why” has become apparent. Companies that focus on culture are becoming magnets for job seekers. Those that don’t are experiencing disruptive — and often expensive — attrition. “Millennials have no problem leaving a company if the culture is toxic,” says David Torrance, a workplace culture expert with Renaissance Executive Forums in Dallas.
Torrance says culture is a hot topic in business today because of the demands of millennials and because management often is struggling with driving the right behaviors to make people want to stay.
For the last decade, the large public accounting firms have worked hard on changing their culture — realizing transformation was crucial for attracting young associates and fixing their leaky pipeline of female accountants. At Deloitte, firm leaders’ first step was exit interviews, where it learned that family-friendly policies weren’t enough to establish a family-friendly culture. Its next step was to initiate programs that let all employees dial up or down their careers and encourage managers at all levels to mentor young workers and go the extra mile to retain women. Today, the company is regularly recognized by Working Mother as one of its Best Places to Work.
Business coach Marie McIntyre says the only way change takes hold is if it comes from the top and becomes reflected in policies, management training and performance appraisals. “You have to start from the top, filter it down, track it and measure it,” she says. At Amazon or at any other company, you can decide at the top to change the culture, but if four levels below, the managers don’t change their styles, then nothing is going to change, she says.
In small companies, the culture can change more easily — for better or worse. A worker at a local retailer recently complained to me that a new manager had come in, forbidden talk among employees, cut workers’ hours and emphasized sales over customer service. Within six months, most of the employees had left. McIntyre says leaders need to be thinking about the culture they are creating by the messages they send through their managers: “If someone is a toxic manager and the CEO takes that person out of a management job, that sends a message. If he finds out but says that person had good results last year and gives him a bonus, that sends another message. Leaders need to think about the message their behavior sends to employees.”
Organizations often discover that the difficult process of culture change may cause workforce casualties. “When you focus on culture as a strategy, you find that some people just won’t fit,” Caldicott says.
Of course, for the employee, finding the right culture fit has become increasingly important, particularly if work/life balance is a high priority. “Some industries and cultures are by their nature time-consuming,” McIntyre says. “You may need to find a workplace with a culture that better fits your life needs. The greatest guarantor of success is a good cultural fit.”
Mari Merce Martin, founder and CEO of Optime Consulting in Weston, says it has taken 10 years to create a culture where the pace is fast, innovation is a priority and employees feel invested in the company’s success: “I wanted a culture where employees are encouraged to be healthy and positive, and to work in collaboration.” Martin acknowledges it could be easy for employees to feel overwhelmed and lacking a work/life balance in an innovative, high-growth culture. She requires that managers give employees and customers a time line for project completion: “We make it clear to our employees that we expect them to deliver, but they are part of a team and we want to keep them.”
For Amazon, the trick now is to keep the thrill of working at an innovative company alive while removing some of the behaviors that increase the risk of losing its best talent. Bezos has to instill in managers the importance of encouraging constructive feedback and showing empathy in personal situations, while also pushing workers to move the company forward at a fast pace. Experts say it is doable. Now we will see how successfully Bezos can deliver.
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on workplace and work/life issues. Connect with her @balancegal, email her at BalanceGal@gmail.com, or visit worklifebalancingact.com.