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  • Writer's pictureAustin Yates

Culture is King

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

I'm admittedly fatigued by the remote vs. in-person debate, but I found Andy Jassy's recent internal message on the topic interesting to the degree it talks about culture. Few people have been able to observe workforces on the scale that Jassy and his “s-team” have – a scale at which individual and team idiosyncrasies fade into the background and allow management to draw semi-scientific conclusions about remote work’s effects on culture, innovation, and productivity. I only wish he’d referenced the data that supported his decision to return to in-person work (at least 3 days a week).

I was lucky (unlucky?) to be on the OppFi team that facilitated the COVID-induced transition to WFH in 2020. After the required technology and processes were in place, then came the question: What should we track to determine if this is working? In my experience, a team’s ability to answer this question depends on the strength of executive leadership. It requires knowing the answer to another, more fundamental question: What matters to us? Sure, part of the answer is specific to each job function, but I’d argue that teams should be able to derive the rest by applying leadership’s common priorities to the problem at hand. These priorities should be few, concise, and communicated (in words and actions) by leadership at every level of the organization. Employees should know them by heart.

A common answer to the question of, “What should we track?” is productivity. If productivity remains constant, why not allow employees work from home? While productivity in its various forms is indeed an important metric, in my experience a focus on productivity at the expense of everything else is a slow path to failure. Viewed organization-wide, it’s often a lagging indicator of core systemic issues. Few modern companies create a sustainable competitive advantage by emphasizing productivity in and of itself (perhaps Coke got away with this when using their original recipe?). Short-term productivity results from time-relevant incentives, training, and having the tools to do the job (enablement), while long-term productivity results from things like organizational knowledge (learning curve), innovation, and individual fulfillment/meaning.

Notice Jassy doesn’t mention productivity as one of the supporting observations for a return to office. His arguments for in person work are improvements in (1) culture, (2) collaboration/ innovation, (3) learning, and (4) team connection. These are difficult to quantify regardless of job function, but they represent the core of Amazon’s identity and long-term competitive advantage. I'd argue they are the bedrock of all great companies.

I used to meet the topic of company culture with eye rolls. I thought it was a conversation for touchy-feely people who lacked the capacity for "sexy" topics such as “analytics,” “optimization,” and “strategy.” I was naive. Company culture is the engine that drives everything else, and it will make or break an organization.

A dear friend and local pastor defines love as “the things we pay attention to.” I think it's a useful frame for examining company culture as well. What does your organization pay attention to? What does it communicate about the things that are important to you? The answer must describe with laser precision what a company hopes to bring about; the “ends” to accompany the oft-discussed “means.” Priorities, more than words, drive culture.

I believe the organization of the 21st century performs optimally when both the firm and its employees are reaching their highest potential, using a holistic definition of “potential” that extends well beyond earnings. Admittedly, this is incredibly difficult; perhaps the most difficult - and important - task of any business leader. However, just as engines are designed such that they operate optimally at a specific speed, organizations can similarly be designed to perform optimally under specific conditions. The first step is defining "optimal" for your organization.

I have no idea whether Jassy agrees with me, but I do know he’s willing to deal with the wrath of 75,000 Amazon employees who will soon find themselves trudging through the Seattle gloom 3 days a week to sit in a cubical…or on a bean bag…or in a hammock…to stay true to Amazon’s priorities. What is optimal for Amazon is not optimal for every company, and time will tell if it’s the right answer for them, but I commend Andy for maintaining a focus on Amazon’s north star. His message may be the work of his PR team, but his employees will discern whether he means it.


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