From White Collar Sweatshop to Progressive Employer?

A few years ago, after reading a disturbing New York Times article, I attempted to boycott Amazon. I call it an attempt because I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that I haven’t ordered from the company since the boycott began. But I think I did pretty well at avoiding it, which isn’t easy considering that now it even is developing its own shows. I would even try avoiding links to Amazon to buy books mentioned in articles or blogs. I would send readers instead to the author’s Website or a Google Books page.

But my boycott might be over. I noticed two articles in last week’s New York Times about Amazon’s treatment of its workforce that impressed me: Amazon to Share New Building with Homeless Shelter in Seattle and Forget Beanbag Chairs. Amazon is Giving its Workers Treehouses. In the article that shocked me a few years ago, the company was depicted as having such a merciless culture that employees usually didn’t last long. It sounded like they were overworked and emotionally abused. I didn’t want to give business to a company that treated its employees that way. I didn’t feel that having products ordered over the Internet delivered to my home within a day or two was an important enough mission to justify that kind of treatment of other people.

I like to buy from companies, and people, I feel sympatico with, and I didn’t feel that for Amazon, or its founder, Jeff Bezos. He seemed like the worst Type A boss a creative, sensitive, daydreamer like myself could imagine.

Millennials, and many of us Generation Xers, prefer to buy from companies we feel good about paying, so I wonder if I was one of many who tried to shop elsewhere after the harsh treatment of Amazon’s workforce was revealed. Amazon continues to do a gangbusters business, so those of us disturbed enough about the news to boycott must be in the minority, but maybe there was enough noise from people like me that the company realized it had to do better—or at least it needed better publicity about its corporate culture. However much, or little, the company cares about its employees, it doesn’t want “white collar sweatshop” to be a part of its branding.

The homeless shelter that will be housed in one of its new buildings was an over-the-top positive gesture. I’ve had fantasies about just this kind of thing for years. I’ve often wondered why companies with many billions of dollars don’t do things like this. Is it a lack of opportunity or motivation? The homeless shelter in Amazon’s building will have its own elevator and entrances, so employees and the homeless won’t be interacting unless by choice, but even with that divide, it’s still a great deed. Employees are sent the message that their company has a caring culture (a caring that hopefully extends to them), while making it easy for employees to volunteer at the shelter regularly. Teambuilding exercises, in which groups of employees visit the shelter to help together, will be as simple as walking around the building to a different entrance.

How you treat your employees, and the community where your company’s headquarters are located, is now a part of every company’s branding. Social media makes it easier than ever to share customers’ impressions of companies, along with links to critical newspaper and magazine articles. So not only do you want to enhance employee morale with philanthropic participation, you also want to let your customers know that you’re, at least partially, doing something positive with the money they spend on your products and services.

The news that Amazon is creating “treehouses” for its workers also is exciting. The company has employed horticulturists to create “spheres” with more than 3,000 species of plants. “The real point of the spheres is how Amazon wants to use the nature on the inside to inspire employees,” Nick Wingfield writes in The New York Times. “When they open in early 2018, the spheres will be packed with a plant collection worthy of top-notch conservatories, allowing Amazon employees to amble through tree canopies three stories off the ground, meet with colleagues in rooms with walls made from vines, and eat kale Caesar salads next to an indoor creek.”

It sounds like heaven. Being stressed out in a treehouse sounds better than being stressed out in a cubicle, doesn’t it? That brings me to a question for you: From what you’ve observed at your own company, what impact, if any, does office environment have on employee stress level? It reminds me of the old saying about how money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you the misery that bests suits you. Is there a corporate stress parallel of that expression? Maybe: A beautiful office environment can’t make your work life less stressful, but it can make you as comfortable as possible while you’re stressed out.

Whether the homeless shelter and the treehouses actually make work life less brutal, and fairer, for Amazon’s employees, no one but those employees will ever know for sure. But for me, it’s a first step to maybe giving Amazon business again. I won’t be giving them my book business, which is reserved for local, independent bookstores, but that upcoming Matthew Weiner Amazon series, The Romanoffs, is tempting.

What are your company’s latest improvements to enhance employee morale and community outreach?

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