Inside the Employee Revolt Rocking Amazon

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On Monday, as Amazon’s corporate employees were griping about an abrupt change to its remote-work policies, a company vice president sent an email to their team in an effort to tamp down the uprising. The email acknowledged the workers’ frustration, a person familiar with its contents said. Then it took a bizarre turn.

The vice president instructed an artificial-intelligence-powered chatbot called ChatGPT to create an imaginary “story about important and organic learnings in the work place,” in an apparent attempt at inspiration.

The chatbot spat out a fairy tale of sorts, which began, painfully, with, “There was once a small software development team…” The story and its protagonist, a project manager named Jane, did not ease the employees’ discontent.

“If you’re trying to put a human face on a thing and say, ‘We understand what you’re going through,’ maybe don’t ask a robot,” one current employee told The Daily Beast, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal events.

Thousands Petition Amazon

Thousands of Amazon staffers are resisting the return-to-office mandate, which was announced Friday and is set to go into effect on May 1. As of early Wednesday afternoon, more than 20,000 people had joined a Slack channel to discuss the change, while roughly 10,000 people had signed a petition calling for CEO Andy Jassy to reverse course.

The new policy “caught everyone by surprise,” another current employee said. Just days earlier, Amazon held an all-hands meeting but made no mention of the shift. When Jassy finally announced the new policy, he did so by quietly posting a memo to the company intranet, according to multiple workers.

“They just snuck it on,” said one employee, who found out about the memo because “someone on my team just happened to look at it.” (An Amazon spokesperson said a push notification was sent out when the letter was posted.) Comments on the memo were also disabled, multiple staffers added, and even some high-level managers seemingly didn’t know about the new policy in advance.

New York Sues Amazon Over Alleged Discrimination Against Pregnant and Disabled

Once news spread, an employee recalled, “immediately all of our internal slacks just started blowing up, like, ‘No, we’re not going back.’”

While some workers were excited to have more face-to-face encounters, many were angry, having seized on Amazon’s previously relaxed policies to make major life choices, according to four current employees. “People had to make decisions, and the decisions were like, fuck it, we’re buying houses. We’re putting our kids in school,” one of them said.

Some staffers, the employee claimed, were recruited during the pandemic with the understanding that they would have minimal required days in the office.

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In a statement, a spokesperson for Amazon said, “We believe being in the office together reinforces our culture, fosters collaboration and invention, creates learning opportunities, and builds more connected teams. As a company with hundreds of thousands of corporate employees, we know any decision we make around how and where we work will invite differing opinions and we respect the right of employees to share those opinions with one another and with leadership.”

In October 2021—Jassy’s most recent update to staff about remote work—he announced that the company planned to leave decisions about office attendance “to individual teams,” rather than enacting a blanket policy. Last September, he publicly stated that Amazon did not “have a plan to require people to come back,” though he said the company planned to “proceed adaptively as we learn.”

While Jassy’s latest update acknowledged that implementation “won’t be perfect at first,” and left room for a “small minority” of exceptions, to some staffers it marked a stark reversal—and betrayal.

“Everyone’s just like, how do we trust these people anymore?” one employee said.

“The emotional reaction I have, which is a feeling of frustration and anger, is we’ve all been through so much over the last three years,” the person continued. “We also fundamentally restructured how we work, and we prioritized different things… And I think in many ways there was a bit of a workers’ revolution.”

The employee questioned whether Amazon’s new approach will be enforceable: “What are they going to do, come pick me up at my house and make me come to work?” Another staffer suspected that lenient managers may refuse to mark their workers absent if they don’t show up three times in a week.

Amid the frustration, another theory is brewing among some disgruntled workers: that the new mandate was designed—or at least motivated—by a desire to encourage more employees to quit, thereby reducing overhead without needing to pay severance. Workers have already endured two major rounds of layoffs since the fall.

“This is how they’re going to get rid of another 10 or 20,000 people,” an employee told The Daily Beast. (An Amazon spokesperson said that “any suggestion that this guidance is intended to drive attrition is simply not true.”)

Either way, the speculation signals depleted employee morale, and brewing distrust against Amazon’s leadership.

“It kind of feels like the Hunger Games,” one weary staffer said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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