Lessons from Amazon’s workplace culture

(Story by Henry Albrecht originally appeared in Employee Benefit News)

Commentary: Shining a light into the dark corners of a big corporation – like Amazon – always makes a great media story. When enormous, successful, unique, customer-obsessed companies show weakness, someone is always there to pounce. But let’s be honest – no place is perfect.

I think of Amazon employees like the Navy Seals of tech – performance junkies on a mission to speed up the markets they disrupt. Maybe this is a great approach. Maybe it’s inhumane. Maybe some of both. I don’t work there, so I can’t say. But whether you are a lover or lambaster of the Bezos way, take the controversy as an opportunity to look hard at your own corporate culture.

It’s a fallacy to think of culture in terms of being “good” or “bad.” The reality is that culture is all about alignment with business strategy. When strategy and culture diverge, the best intentions of leaders and the real lives of employees diverge. Then internal friction, toxicity and direct internal competition fester – slowing down performance, frustrating partners and customers, exasperating employees and ultimately hurting the bottom line. Culture is a process that happens with our without your intentional guidance. Guide or die: Waiting to “see what happens” with your culture is a recipe for disaster.

At Limeade, attracting, retaining and taking the reins off of high-energy, high-performing people is an intentional part of our culture of improvement. One of the ways we do this is by recognizing that sleep, resilience, exercise, stress management, meaningful work, a sense of team and other “well-being factors” tie directly to how well we serve our customers. Health and well-being innovation is also the business we’re in, so employee improvement and well-being are strategic for that reason as well.

Employees who feel their employer cares about their well-being are 38% more engaged, 18% more likely to go the extra mile for the company and 28% more likely to recommend their workplace. They’re also 10 times less likely to be hostile (like those employees we all have, but don’t want to see in the New York Times).

Companies that believe these data embrace well-being by offering flexibility, walking paths, health challenges, and similar things. At Limeade, our marketing team started its own experiment to work from home on Thursdays (without asking me first). If it helped (or didn’t hurt) team and company performance, it would become their team’s norm. Consider mini-investments like non-sugary food, walking meetings, yoga breaks, training opportunities, team-building steps challenges, and whatever else you can think to test. Keep what works, what motivates, what brings out the best in your culture – and what delivers measurable outcomes like increased retention, lower health costs and higher levels of employee- and customer delight. Then these engagement investments aren’t just a random set of “perks” – they’re strategic ways to have people as psyched as a Limeade marketer on a Thursday.

Pulling from my own experience as a leader – as well as insights gleaned from our own Limeade customers – here are three simple tips to avoid hostility and foster cultural alignment:

1. Bring your values to life. It may seem cliché, but employees really are the heart of any business. Taking care of them is taking care of business. To make values work, employers have to go beyond lip service. Your values have to define the culture – to demonstrate how it comes to life. Every employee has a “what” they do – but “how” they do it is the value in action.

One of our values is “We’re a team.” It obviously means we work together as teams, but it’s so much deeper than just playing nice with co-workers. It’s about how we interact, how we collaborate, how we pitch in, how we go the extra mile (which sometimes requires extra hours), and even how we celebrate success.

2. Integrate Intentionality.  Once you’ve created an intentional culture, it’s vital to integrate it into everything you do. The CEO may be your culture king or queen, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to bring the mojo. This means clear communication about what the culture is and isn’t, as well as everyday demonstration by executives, managers and everyone else. When executives, mid-level managers and front-line employees aren’t aligned on culture, the toxic feedback inevitable in big companies is easier to manage through.

It’s even more important to make sure potential employees understand and initially opt-in to the culture, and re-up whenever your culture shifts a little (as all great cultures and strategies do over the years). Your culture could be a selling point for potential candidates. At Limeade, our culture is supported by six key values that guide everything we do, including how we hire, promote and recognize our people.

3. Don’t believe in work-life balance. Work-life balance is a fallacy. It’s impossible to find a perfect “balance,” and that’s why it’s so hard for people to achieve it. Simply put, there’s no such thing as your “work self” and your “life self.” Bring your real self everywhere you go.

Recognize how this concept impacts your own employees. One way to address this is by offering flexibility and autonomy so employees are more mentally and emotionally engaged wherever they are. For some companies, this means allowing parents to leave early to watch a piano recital without getting nasty looks from co-workers. For other companies, it means providing stress management tools and education to help everyone become more resilient during the busy season(s).

Strategy-culture alignment may sound like a pipe-dream, but it’s totally possible. Just make sure the tactics you choose to address the “whole employee” authentically fit with your business strategy. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. Those happy walks and happy hours won’t make your people (or your shareholders) happier without a real tie to business goals.

While employee well-being may not be the cornerstone of the Amazon culture, they are very intentional about their own high-performance, customer-obsessed culture. They’ve attracted more than 150,000 employees and built a $90B company. That intense culture is great for some. Our culture is different because our strategy is different.

Don’t be a culture victim. Be intentional. Create alignment from top to bottom. Integrate it across the ranks. And never lose sight of it. It’s hard work, but totally worth it.