Monday, November 29, 2021

This is what happens when Amazon throws office workers out into the wild

The sprawling real estate headquarters Amazon.com Inc. is set to build in Crystal City in Arlington County, Virginia is a work in progress, even before construction is completed next year.

For instance, how far will Amazon be able to turn the building to keep on doing all it does when the workers aren’t there? Will the sidewalks keep their walkers? Will the new hangout bars that Amazon will set up within the headquarters be able to dance and drink?

Amazon is unlike most other brands. Its emphasis on every molecule of the customer experience can throw off its ability to tackle certain tasks. I want to put this into context using a hypothetical: Imagine I am a warehouse manager at Costco (COST).

Now imagine I have to manage a warehouse that isn’t running on commission: some person from Costco’s HR organization enters our warehouse with a giant spreadsheet and cross-checks that with my inventory and sales report, looking for the two big offenders. I deal with this across a handful of warehouses, but everything else in my job is rote. Without an employee representative walking around our stores to check that our merchandise is working properly and shouldn’t be returned, Costco would not be able to operate.

And what if, when all those same employees couldn’t take a break to take a piss, all our inventory would break? Or all those in-store changes I’ve pushed wouldn’t be making a difference? What if Amazon’s employees aren’t allowed to have a break, let alone enjoy one?

As someone who ran warehouses at warehouses in the 1960s and ’70s, I can assure you that one of the top functions of a warehouse manager is to deal with physical safety and check on everything — including human resources employees and warehouse staff who are walking around doing their job without a break.

While it may sound counterintuitive, a more connected and collaborative workforce could mean a more distracted workforce, where employees get sidetracked by their own personal interests and issues, or through the stores and stores.

Amazon won’t be the first company to run an office building with these sorts of considerations in mind. Consider the fact that when Google opened its (now considerably larger) campus in Mountain View, California, it decided to include a free lunch program for employees to use for dinner, even during their commute. The idea was to not only be competitive with other companies, but also to create a productive environment that only the most in-the-know employees would notice.

But even just as these more relaxed work environments build a more productive employee, it can also strain the security of these environments. During my time as a warehouse manager at Costco, a manager from another warehouse across the warehouse in another state was stealing our hanger items and selling them to Costco’s other warehouses across the country. By providing a lunch program, Costco unwittingly created a conflict between two warehouses and several employees who were caught doing one thing and doing another.

I think Amazon is a company to learn from. In order to succeed, you have to challenge traditional business practices. Amazon can improve its broken warehouse experience by building on its traditions of innovation. Whether it’s having engineers develop their own designs for its shipments, launching a drone delivery service, or starting its own grocery stores, Amazon has a long history of thinking out of the box, especially when it comes to running retail businesses.

When other companies start dropping customers at its front doors, I hope that Amazon will keep looking out the window to see if it’s time to innovate.

A version of this article originally appeared on Hyperallergic.

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