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Why We’re So Obsessed With Amazon’s Work Culture

Behind all the hubbub is the (pernicious, groundless) worry that we should all be working like Amazonians.

Why We’re So Obsessed With Amazon’s Work Culture
[Photo: Mike Kane/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

The recent New York Times exposé of Amazon’s white-collar Hunger Games-esque work culture struck a particular nerve with my group of tech friends in a way that, say, the terrible working conditions at McDonald’s–or even at an Amazon warehouse–could not. We talked about it on the beach on Sunday and on Slack on Monday. A friend and I wondered out loud whether working at Amazon was like being stuck in a shitty relationship. And the firestorm of hot takes that flooded my Twitter feed hinted that basically everyone else who works in media and tech was doing much the same thing.

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What made the story of Amazon’s alleged psychological abuse of its employees so entrancing to the tech community? Anyone who’s worked in the field–or in an office, for that matter–can identify with the story at some level. But I think a bigger reason for all the hubbub is the shared sense that in order to accomplish anything really spectacular, we’re supposed to be working as hard as the poor Amazonians supposedly are.

The tech industry is unmatched in its zeal to glorify those who never leave the office. The 80-hour work week is a staple that comes up in virtually every story about startups. The insinuation is always that if you’re not treating work like a frat boy treats a cooler of free Bud Light–bingeing on it relentlessly–you’re failing.

Some of the reactions to the story from the Silicon Valley elite only reinforced the impression of that powerful anxiety:

But these are very successful, very rich people, right? Clearly they’ve found that that sort of culture pays off. Even so, does that mean that if you aren’t repulsed by the idea of habitually working 80-hour weeks, you can’t expect to succeed? As a manager at a tech company, it’s a big question I grapple with. Admittedly, that insecurity can have a huge impact on the demands you place on yourself and your team–and, ultimately, can impact the quality of your lives.

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But here’s the thing: Bingeing on work to an extreme extent just doesn’t make sense. Research shows that work weeks that run longer than 50 hours are likely counterproductive; you get little more out of an employee who works 70 hours than one who works 50, and the extra stress burns employees out faster and leads to more turnover. In fact, that last point is something Amazon doesn’t seem to dispute–it’s just a part of the company’s model. But that doesn’t mean every company needs to adopt it to succeed. Far from it–no workplace is exempt from the laws of exponential decay, which, simply put, means that productivity drops off a cliff if you push people too hard for too long.

Getting incredible results from the few who survive such an environment makes for a compelling narrative, but the data make it a hard one to defend. As an industry, we’re telling ourselves a dangerous, self-propagating myth about the power–and perhaps even moral righteousness–of extreme work hours, fueling the worry that we’ll fail catastrophically should we choose any other way.

This week, everyone wondered what went on at Amazon, and whether to see it as a scandal or something else altogether. But we should really be wondering whether the stories we tell ourselves as an industry do more harm than good.

Joe Lazauskas is the editor in chief of Contently, and a technology and marketing journalist. His work has appeared in Digiday, Mashable, and Forbes, and he is the former editor in chief of The Faster Times and The New York Egotist.

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