Taking Stock: What the Amazon Exposé Can Teach Us about Company Culture

Jessica Blog
Jessica Barrett
September 1, 2015

Since the New York Times exposé on Amazon was published on August 15, there has been a deluge of reaction articles on the exposé and on Amazon’s company culture. It’s possible to get lost in a whole new kind of Amazon. No, I don’t mean an Amazon warehouse, or Amazon’s upcoming sprawling office complex that will take up an entire Seattle city block, or even the regular Amazon rainforest. It’s easy to get drawn into the complex online back-and-forth about what the “right” company culture is.

The seemingly endless opinions on the topic have brought to light an important question for people trying to establish and sustain a productive environment and positive work culture: how can anyone be sure how policies, whether formal or informal, are impacting employees?  As an insider to crafting and understanding organizational culture, the answer is a simple twist on a popular expression: Ask the people, stupid!

How our company culture met my expectations

In my first few months as the Manager of Employee Engagement, I was tasked with finding the right practices and social opportunities to keep our employees happy and engaged in the workplace. Before my first day, I wondered if the professed company culture would end up being true to form. From my application experiences, I read and heard about the laidback culture, the company’s much-lauded kickball team, and how Perfect Search placed the utmost importance on continuously improving as individuals and as a company.

By speaking to my experiences getting acclimated to our office culture, I hope to give you an example of how talking to your employees will give you the most accurate reflection of what it really feels like to be a member of your organization.

During my first Thursday at the office, I experienced my first weekly team meeting, accompanied as always with beer and a “welcome-to-the-office” shot of Malort. (Never heard of Malort? That might be a good thing. It’s a Chicago wormwood liqueur that tastes like a combination of absinthe and bitter troll feet.) Anyway. It was a happy hour in every sense, filled with laughter, ping pong, and ice breakers.

The following day was a work-from-home Friday and I rolled out of bed and began my workday right in my own kitchen. Working remotely was even an option extended to the Monday after Lollapalooza. It gave our music lovers the opportunity to be more comfortable and productive after the tiring weekend. Note: there are quite a few music lovers here, proven by the various styles of music that are continuously filling our office thanks to our many full-time analysts, part-time DJs.  As I got to know my coworkers, I experienced our company culture walking right off the job description and into the office each and every day (except Work-from-Home Fridays, of course).

Why is it easier for small companies to craft company culture?

Small companies are at an advantage when crafting company culture because it can be more easily personalized to the workers. This personalization is something that is worth doing because people are your organization’s best asset and it’s important that you demonstrate this for them. For example, at Perfect Search, when someone suggests yogurt for breakfast, we do it. When our social media manager realizes that we don’t know much about blogging, she leads our weekly meeting to teach us more.

There should not be any ambiguity for employees in understanding what working at a certain company means to them. Of course, that’s not to say that company culture should not be fluid. Mold your culture with whatever is best for your employees—something which is easier to understand when it’s feasible to speak to each and every one of them.

The thing that I am most proud of at Perfect Search—besides being able to wear jeans to work—is the constant effort for the whole company to keep learning and improving.  Our weekly learning hour is a time when people indulge in exploring something that interests them. The most amazing thing is that this learning hour is typically a team effort. Groups will work together to refresh a skill or someone will teach others their area of expertise.

Learning and self-improvement do not happen in a vacuum. I’m proud of the fact that Perfect Search fosters an environment where each individual and our team as a whole is consistently getting smarter and stronger.

The importance of asking employees how they feel about the company culture

For anyone looking to describe their company’s culture or aiming to simply understand it, ask those involved in it. It can be hard to have a clear picture of how lofty policies actually affect those for whom the policies were put into place. It’s important to get your hands dirty and take a moment to have candid conversations (or online surveys, if the former isn’t possible) with your employees, especially new hires.

Employees at every level can become too accustomed to the culture that surrounds them, akin to the idea of fish not knowing they are in water. Ask your newest coworkers about what they notice or feel having entered into a new environment. Ask your oldest coworkers what they like or dislike about the company. Be open to criticism and feedback. Then you will be able to see how your actual company culture can be altered to reach the culture your company needs to or wants to have.

Amazon’s warehouses are known for being ever-changing, with items tracked by barcode and stored randomly rather than grouped by category. This practice allows for more flexibility with numerous goods coming and going—and this method is almost easier to take stock of than their complicated company culture. What’s necessary to take away from the many articles on Amazon’s company culture is that no matter how large or small your company is, it is imperative to know what you have, what you don’t have, and what you should have. Small organizations should be happy that they have the ability to regroup and reorganize more easily than other larger companies, but all organizations—no matter the size—must take stock of their culture.

How do you communicate with your employees? Are you a Malort fan? Email us at info@perfectsearchmedia.com or tweet us @perfect_search!

Jessica Barrett

Jessica Barrett is a passionate soup enthusiast who loves reading about Chicago. In her spare time she enjoys biking around the city, and sincerely wishes that she and Leslie Knope could be friends.

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