What the Amazon Story Says About Our Always-on Business Culture
I love Amazon, but like many I was disturbed by what I read in the New York Times’ recent exposé. Still, I was actually more disturbed by what came next.
I read defenses of Amazon from entrepreneurs, leaders, tech writers, and others. Some were easy to agree with. It’s a free country, after all. People can work where they want—even high-intensity, always-on companies like Amazon.
That wasn’t the problem.
What bothered me was the widely held assumption that this kind of environment is necessary for profitable, competitive companies—as if entrepreneur were just another word for workaholic. Or that free market is code for kiss nights and weekends goodbye.
Can we just label this what it is? Self-destructive and stupid. I know because I’ve proven it personally.
Winning at Work and Succeeding at Life
Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or listens to my podcast knows I’ve always been a high-achiever. As an up-and-coming executive, business owner, corporate CEO, solopreneur, I’ve always had big goals.
I’ve also made a lot of sacrifices at the expense of my family and health over the years. I’m convinced the tradeoff wasn’t worth it—not only for my personal life, but also for my professional life.
Now my mission is to help people win at work and succeed at life. What I missed for years, and what Amazon seems to miss right now, is that these goals are only achieved in tandem. If we try doing one at the expense of the other, we eventually fail at both.
Actions Reveal Our Values
The Amazon story jumped out for me because I was planning a strategic retreat for my company to look at the past year and set goals for the next several years. We also planned to review our values.
Two of those values—fast action and consistent growth—would be recognizable to Amazon. But based on the exposé, another two would be less recognizable—significant margin and prioritizing our team.
This is a struggle in our business. We’ve had plenty of times on launches or major projects where the team has had to put in excessive hours. But none of us is proud of that. Instead, we’re actively improving our processes to preserve the team’s time even in the middle of high-stakes initiatives.
Why? Because we know our team members and their margin matter for our ultimate success.
3 Reasons Amazon Should Rethink its Culture
Jeff Bezos is known as a data guy. Me too. And with that in mind, here are three reasons Amazon’s leadership should seriously reconsider the culture they’re building.
- Rested employees are better employees. One person in the NYT story claimed she skipped sleep for four straight days. That’s not heroic. That’s dumb. And it’s terrible for the business.
I’ve written a lot about the importance of sleep and margin. What the research tells us is simple. When we cheat our sleep and recreation, we’re less effective employees. Our productivity dive bombs along with our creativity, judgment, and everything else.
Amazon and its customers would be better served if employees tucked in by ten and didn’t check their email over the weekend.
- You can’t easily separate work life and home life. Technology has erased the divide between work life and home life. Our phones and portable devices mean we’re always on—as much as seventy hours a week or more. That’s not all happening at the office. It bleeds into nights and weekends, which leaves little to no room for family.
And this goes both ways. When our personal lives are out of kilter, it wrecks our professional performance. We eat up family time, and our family suffers. Then we drag that stress into the office. I can’t think of one person I’ve worked with in forty years who’s productivity improved while their marriage ended or their kids were going off a cliff.
Bottom line: A culture that encourages employees to work all hours will damage the support structure at home that makes those employees good at their jobs in the first place.
- Burnout breeds cynicism. There’s no way around this. Not only does burnout hurt the employee’s professional and personal life, it breeds the kind of cynicism that kills offices and hinders customer relations. Why? Because employees get the message they don’t matter.
When employees think the company only wins when they lose, it’s easy to get bitter and spread that attitude through the organization. It even hurts customer relations because the customer becomes the reason Dad missed his daughter’s soccer game, or Mom missed her son’s band performance.
And what for? Thanks to lower productivity, it’s not like these employees are even making any real gains for their sacrifices. It’s all about getting along in a wrongheaded office environment.
A Failure of Imagination
I love making money as much as the next guy—probably more. That’s exactly why I’m not only committed to consistent growth, but also instilling rest in my company culture. I want a business with increasing financial margin and personal margin for my whole team.
Our always-on culture is not only unnecessary, it’s also counterproductive. If Amazon is truly interested in serving customers—which it lists as its primary value—doesn’t it want employees serving those customers at peak performance, not sleep deprived, emotionally depleted, and drained of energy?
It’s never too late to steer the ship another direction. Amazon has done wonders since its inception. Imagine what could happen if it were actually operating at full capacity instead of the mirage of it?
An overbusy life is not an economic necessity; it’s a failure of imagination. Constraints spur creativity. What if we determined that we would not work certain hours and instead got smarter and more creative with the time we have?
Instead of grinding that found time back into the business, we could truly help our teams and our businesses by resting, playing, spending time with our families, or—something Amazon knows a lot about—reading a good novel.
It would do wonders for Amazon. It would do wonders for us all.
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