Now that the fiery reaction towards Amazon’s working culture has tamed—at least just a bit—it’s time we turn inward for a little bit of self-reflection. Why did the controversy over Bezos and his company grab our collective attention so tightly, when flawed company cultures are hardly rare in Silicon Valley or elsewhere? Sure, some of the examples offered by employees exposed grave workplace issues. But any company, from the 20-person startup to the publicly traded, is familiar with the pressure of showcasing strong results from constant company growth. Burnout can come knocking at anyone’s door.
The issue is that Amazon is such a tremendously successful company on so many other levels. Like the New York Times originally reported, you don’t grow to be the most valuable retailer in the country, with a market value of $250 billion and a CEO ranked the fifth wealthiest person in the world, without doing something right. So the question, then, becomes this: Can you create high market performance, and a culture of high performance, without the cost of employee happiness and fulfillment?
I believe that’s possible.
Many others, including Bezos in his memo responding to the NY Times piece, believe that a healthy corporate culture is critical to productivity and success in the long-term. “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed [in the New York Times piece] could survive,” Bezos wrote. Culture needs to remain one of the CEO’s top priorities, always.
The solution, as I see it, is to invest in employees as much as you expect them to invest in your company. It also means holding certain tenets of culture to be true, even when the going gets tough. I’ve had time to take a self inventory, and here are the values I believe are critical to creating an environment that keeps employees happy—while still fostering the high performance and growth that big and small companies need.
Every company, especially in tech, wants employees who are driven. But, what is it that they are driven by: personal success or team success?
When you need to source high performers really quickly, you can get so caught up in identifying the perfect skill set that cultural fit can fall by the wayside. You can forget to hire employees who are nice.
I’ve learned to hire people who use words like “we” and “team” rather than “I” and “me.” Look for the humble heroes who credit others with their success instead of looking to take credit for themselves. That way, employees stay team-focused, even when the pressure is on to perform at their best every single day.
When you let employees in on exactly what’s going on at your company, you prove that you trust them. It’s a key ingredient in the recipe of a happy company culture.
Use company meetings as a chance to let everyone know what’s happening, from higher management on down to the different projects in each department. Employees then gain appreciation for the work of colleagues whom they don’t work with every day. Let everyone know what exciting things are on the horizon, too. Get everyone excited, and use the opportunity to remind employees about your core goals—the very reasons why everyone works so hard in the first place.
It’s also valuable to keep team and personal goals transparent. Celebrate wins, and new hires as well. So much unnecessary tension between employees can be diffused by simply remaining open in all that you do. That means employees spend less time needlessly worrying and more time innovating, producing, and putting work first.
Despite criticism of the company’s gender gap, Amazon does take diversity seriously, and that’s a good thing. Only through diversity can you create a flexible working environment to respond to daily challenges.
Diversity is not just about gender or ethnicity, but also about the unique skills and varied life experiences everyone brings to their roles. When your culture is one of collaboration—between coworkers, teams, and the whole company—you gain perspective on challenges you would never gain otherwise.
The whole point of joining a startup, or any innovative company, is to grow both personally and professionally. Each employee should be striving to get better at everything they do, every single day. A startup especially needs to find the right roles for everyone, particularly those crucial early employees.
Growth is also about putting your money where your mouth is. Talk is increasingly cheap, so making tangible investments in employees is more important than ever. At Namely, we offer a professional development program where employees are given yearly funds to spend on anything that’ll advance their careers, from international conferences to college courses.
Succession planning is what keeps employees around, the opposite of “churn and burn.” Encourage growth, not just in your business, but in every employee.
It’s too easy to dismiss the cultural issues at Amazon as solely work-life balance problems. The values above speak to other important perspectives. That said, I believe companies do need to celebrate the work and personal lives of their teams. That’s the “empathy” Jeff Bezos calls attention to in his memo—the lack of which, he writes, he has zero tolerance for.
Successful companies expect a lot from their people in every department, but they also celebrate employees’ lives away from the office. Unlimited paid time off is not just a policy, it's a mindset, and one we use at Namely. Employees are free to take the time they need, and we trust them to get the job done.
The best companies, the ones that change the world, are the ones that build products and services for the long term. Not just for tomorrow, but for whatever lies ahead. That means you certainly have to take care of your company’s most important asset: its people. Talk with them, hear how they feel about your company, your leadership. Be there for them. You all work too hard to not enjoy the company you work for. When both of you truly do, the sky’s the limit.