Amazon, Microsoft and the Seattle Shakeout in Remote Work

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When Amazon announced in March that most of its 60,000 corporate workers in the Seattle area would return to the office by fall, some employees were infuriated. A few threatened to quit for reasons both substantial and less consequential, including one who said post-pandemic rules would interrupt his regularly scheduled kayaking.

At the same time, Microsoft, headquartered in nearby Redmond, said employees could work from home, the office or in a hybrid arrangement.

In the Seattle area’s rarefied world of highly prized high tech workers, the comparison is sometimes unavoidable. Covid-19 compounded the impression that Microsoft is often more enlightened, Amazon, more hard driving and old school.

As companies compete for certain elite workers, demand for remote or hybrid work is fast becoming a major part of hiring negotiations and compensation packages. Over time, flexible arrangements will become more prevalent. They may be more important than pay.

“I think the job market has changed forever,” said Chris Bloomquist, co-founder of the Talent Mine, a Seattle-based tech recruiting startup.

Years ago, Bloomquist said he could have counted on one hand the number of prospective employees seeking remote work. Now, seven of 10 candidates mention it off the top. And many, several recruiters say, insist on 100% remote.

A few weeks ago, Amazon clarified its rules, likely shamed into it by corporate peer pressure, including from Microsoft. Amazon now plans to allow two days of remote work. Clearly, this beats its earlier “office centric culture as our baseline,” but maybe not by enough.

“People can be wooed away by other companies,” said one Amazon software engineer, who like many employees requested anonymity to speak openly. “I am jealous of Microsoft. There is implicit trust in Microsoft’s policy, that trust is meaningful.”

A self-described introvert, she feels the office reduces her productivity, which flourished under stay-home rules, partly because she said she recharged after a daily siesta.

As of now, Microsoft says when offices fully open in September, employees can work from home half the time, no questions asked. Additional time can be arranged with a manager, which is also true at Amazon.

Even after Amazon’s policy upgrade, an important difference remains. Remote days at Microsoft are employee determined, Amazon’s, by management. 

So who gets to kayak?

Flexible work arrangements at these types of companies are mostly available to a privileged group of information workers, software engineers, software architects, data scientists, folks in artificial intelligence, and some sales and customer service workers who worked remotely before Covid.

On-site workers include hardware engineers, for example, people who work on computer hardware and some other equipment, and frontline workers, for example, building receptionists.

Some smaller companies like the Seattle-based real estate website Zillow one-upped a lot of competitors with its fully flexible policy on where employees could work, a hiring advantage.

“Ultimately it was the deciding factor for me,’’ said Brecia Young, a recently hired senior data scientist at Zillow. Young lives in Chicago and didn’t want to relocate. She picked Zillow over other possible employers because the other companies were less specific about remote work.

To be clear, remote work is unavailable for Zillow home evaluators and, for regulatory reasons, some who work in home loans.

After a year of working remotely, many workers understandably grew accustomed to it. One financial analyst whose Amazon work was linked to a fulfillment center, Grigory Lukin, left in in May, because he said Amazon wanted him back at the center and he couldn’t face the commute. He now lives in Canada.

You may be able to explain Amazon’s approach by taking a quick look at its many new office buildings; the company has invested heavily in real estate.

But this is an entirely new work universe. Wages are rising in many industries. Workers are quitting in big numbers. How do you keep them down on the farm — or off the farm — after they have experienced the freedom of remote or hybrid work?

A Microsoft study found that 73% of 30,000 people in 31 countries want flexible, remote work to stay. Paradoxically, 67% also want more in-person time. The companies most likely to win the talent war, therefore, will offer a mix.

“There is a pretty firmly held belief this is a very big change... everybody around the world wants more flexible work options,’’ said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365. “Don’t tell me we are an in-the-office culture. We’ve just done this. I’m hearing anecdotally, ‘Man, for the first time in my career, I am having breakfast with my kids. I didn’t know what I was missing.’”

The rivalry between Amazon and Microsoft isn’t new: Both consider themselves workplace pioneers. Amazon, don’t forget, lets workers bring half a kennel to the office. And over many years, locals have asked, which company better connects with the community? Which is more philanthropic? More socially responsible?

The cultural change of the last 16 months is bigger than any company or class of workers. Even some terminology has turned upside down. The phrase “phoning it in” — OK, Zooming it in — is no longer pejorative. It is an increasingly respected feature of the workplace of the future, wherever that may be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joni Balter is a longtime Seattle columnist and writer who contributes to local NPR and PBS affiliates.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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