• David Sharp
  • 18 August 2015

Clash of cultures: the productive workplace?

Much has been written about the ‘future workplace’, a lot of which focuses on the importance of the physical working environment.

However, news from the US this week has thrown light on the role that softer issues such as workplace culture can play in contributing to worker productivity – with some starkly different approaches.

Amazon has been in the news following a report by the New York Times purporting to reveal what it’s really like to work for the mega etailer.

‘Inside Amazon’, the report pulls no punches, describing it as a “bruising workplace” and the working culture as “an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”

The prevailing culture is described in the article as relentless and ultra-competitive: “…workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high’.”

The New York Times quotes one former employee as saying: "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

Amazon Founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, rebuffed the criticism in the report, saying in a memo to staff: "It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard… I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either."

It’s not the first time Amazon has faced criticism over its approach to worker productivity, following a claim in 2013 that its workers faced ‘increased risk of mental illness’. An undercover BBC investigation into a UK-based Amazon warehouse reported night workers walking up to 11 miles during their shift, with one worker expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.

Responding to the BBC investigation at the time, Amazon said: “new recruits are warned some positions are physically demanding and that some workers seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work… productivity targets are set objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by the workforce.”