Working at Amazon: The other side of the story

Author James Bloodworth recently shone the spotlight on poor working conditions at Amazon. Speaking to the firm before the publication of his book, HR magazine heard Amazon's side of the story

It takes just a few minutes for three words to take centre stage when HR magazine catches up with Tina Oakley, HR director of Amazon UK Operations. These are associates, peak and… fun.

First up: ‘associates’, the term Amazon uses to describe the 24,000 individuals working across the UK business, including the thousands Oakley oversees in her role leading HR for Amazon’s 16 British fulfilment centres.

It’s clear from pretty much everything Oakley shares just why the firm steers away from more traditional, hierarchical descriptors. This is a business where the ‘associate’ experience is king, and where everyone is empowered to speak up with suggestions.

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Which brings us to the next of Oakley’s favourite words: peak. “I’ve been here three years now but it just goes so quickly,” she muses as we sit down to chat at Amazon’s shiny new headquarters in Principal Place, Shoreditch (complete with the exposed brickwork and modern furniture you’d expect of such an East London locale).

“Here we measure in how many peaks you’ve done. So I’ve just completed my third peak, which was by far my best from an HR perspective,” says Oakley, whose previous roles include senior HR positions at British Airways (BA) and HR director at Premier Foods, P&O Ferries and Gatwick Airport.

Oakley explains that ‘peak’ refers to the period most important for all retailers: Christmas. Planning for this starts in July (often with Christmas hats worn at the first meeting). And Oakley is clear that if the associate experience didn’t receive so much attention, the amazing logistical feat Amazon performs each year of getting parcels out to last-minute online shoppers wouldn’t be possible.

“The attention to detail, the drive for action around improving the associate experience, is second to none,” she reports. “During the peak period we have daily calls where we look at all the metrics related to people.

“The key is that we treat our associates like we do our customers. We work backwards in terms of our customer obsession,” she explains. “Having worked at BA for 26 years I thought I knew about customer obsession. But it’s in a whole different league here.”

The challenge of taking on an extra 20,000 fulfilment centre staff each Christmas also makes other logistical feats Oakley’s helped manage in her career pale by comparison. “We had very similar peaks at Gatwick in terms of summer and Christmas, but there was nowhere near the same rigour,” she says.

“This is just so spiked, with so many associates, that you need to plan down to the last detail of the number of car parking spaces, getting in and out of the building, passing through security, the canteen…”

Speaking up

A key part of keeping associates happy and efficient during such times is giving them a voice.

“We have a connections tool that asks associates a particular question about their experience every day,” says Oakley. “We target specific issues during peak. And the HR teams go out and interview associates; they talk to 10 to 20 associates every day on a particular topic.

“We’ve also got employee voice boards at every site. If an issue goes onto the Voice of the Associate Board we fix it within 48 hours.”

Also critical to the associate experience is a strong benefits and careers offering. All permanent fulfilment centre employees receive stock grants, which over the last five years were equal to £1,000 or more per year. Amazon’s benefits package includes private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount.

On the L&D side of things, particular support is given to team leads and area managers working in Amazon’s fulfilment centres, who are often 23-year-old “fresh graduates”.

“For these young grads it’s a big step,” says Oakley. “So we’ve jiggled around our HR support so that we have an HR advisor role that supports those new area managers in terms of case management – so disciplinary, grievance; all the things that crop up.”

Oakley is most proud of a scheme available to permanent staff at all levels. Amazon’s Career Choice programme provides funding for adult education, offering 95% of tuition and associated fees for nationally-recognised courses – up to £8,000 over four years.

“That’s not something I’ve seen anywhere else,” says Oakley, citing the example of one associate who retrained as a personal trainer and another as an HGV driver.

“We do that as a thank you to people for their hard work with us,” she says, explaining that the engagement and loyalty this breeds makes it more than worthwhile, with many returning to work for Amazon as and when it suits them.

Having fun

But none of this would amount to anywhere near the current experience enjoyed by associates if it wasn’t for Oakley’s third-favourite word: fun. This is the element many appreciate even more than benefits or training, she reckons. The fun factor is ramped up particularly around Christmas – with DJs, Deal or No Deal games, free hot chocolate stands and selfie booths, to name but a few perks.

“This year we set associates the challenge of using Amazon boxes to create something amazing,” says Oakley. “I was one of the judges and people went to such great lengths… The winner created this amazing festive scene.”

Another unique approach Oakley noticed straight off was leaders not being allowed to actually “do anything” for their first couple of months. This is to ensure that the brand’s culture of fun, but also ‘customer obsession’, is truly absorbed.

“In the first four months of onboarding I was not allowed to make a single decision,” reports Oakley. “That was very frustrating because I’m such a doer! But looking back it was absolutely the right thing.”

And it all seems to be paying off. Amazon achieved £1.8 billion in exports courtesy of UK Marketplace sellers in 2016, seeing 29% year-on-year growth in this area. It also opens on average three or four new fulfilment centres each year. (Four are set to open in 2018: in Bristol, Bolton, Coventry and Rugby.)

Automation and Brexit

Not that there aren’t challenges on the horizon. Any talk of warehouse environments brings increasing levels of automation to mind. Amazon pioneered the use of robots after acquiring Kiva in 2012, and today operates 80,000 of the machines – used to retrieve items as soon as they’re requested – globally.

Inevitably this creates much debate around job losses. But Oakley is adamant that careful management of how technology is rolled out ensures robotics enhance rather than detract from the associate experience.

“We don’t introduce technology without thinking about the impact it will have,” she says. “We focus a lot on change management; on each site we have a senior ops leader accountable for change.”

She highlights that Amazon is creating employment by expanding its UK logistics network, and that robotics are only ever about “making the job easier” for staff. “Quality is such a big thing for us so someone does a six-sided check on each item,” she adds. “That’s something a person has to do and it can’t be replicated [by a machine].”

Brexit is unsurprisingly another potential challenge. But Oakley is confident that Amazon’s “offering in the marketplace and how it’s seen as an employer will continue to give [it] the edge” in attracting staff.

The business truly is a bit different to other employers, feels Oakley. “We talk about taking a fresh pair of eyes to things every day. That’s very much how we operate; we don’t want to become a ‘day-two company’,” she comments.

She adds: “You see people when they arrive at Amazon; they’re super excited to be here, then they go through ‘this is all quite different’. But then they really get into their stride.”