The article in Sunday’s New York Times describing Amazon’s relentless, hard-driving work environment is, in many ways, a case study in how one very large company is responding to our changing work world. On the face of it, Amazon appears to be moving in a different direction from many of the other companies stealing headlines these days—for example, Netflix, which recently rolled out unlimited parental leave for a year, and Accenture, which announced in July that it would stop doing annual performance reviews altogether.
Yet on a deeper level, there is common ground among these organizations and countless others, including yours. They are all reacting in different ways to the same pressures: globalization, a data-obsessed business culture, and the struggle to balance the growing demands on employers against a finite pool of talent comprised of people who, frankly, have lives of their own. These issues are not only shaping the way modern organizations function, they are redefining the role of HR. The links in this post will point you to resources that will help you excel in this brave new world.
According to the Times article, Amazon utilizes the controversial “rank and yank” performance evaluation technique, in which the lowest performers are shown the door each year, as well as a continuous performance management system that allows anyone to provide anonymous input on his or her colleagues.
Relatively few companies still use forced ranking methods, but many are rethinking perfomance management as the workplace becomes more fast-paced, collaborative, and knowledge-based. Some are integrating social-based methods and strategies to incorporate more feedback from peers as well as superiors.
Marcus Buckingham is among the thought leaders who believe the current method of assessing performance is fundamentally flawed due to the inherent bias introduced when one human being is asked to rate another. He calls for frequent meetings between team leaders and employees that focus primarily on people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.
The Times piece described Amazon employees who would routinely cry at their desks and spend hours doing work on nights, weekends, and vacations. While most employees don’t face work stress quite that intense, many feel increasing pressure to be available to their employers around the clock. As a result, Americans are feeling more stressed and overwhelmed than ever at both work and home.
And it’s not just those in high-level positions. In fact, research indicates that people who aren't in leadership positions may suffer from more stress than senior executives. The reason is that they feel less in control of their fate at work.
Looking for Balance
At Amazon, some white-collar employees have struggled to balance personal responsibilities—such as child or elder care, as well as managing their own medical hardships—with crushing work demands, at least according to Sunday’s article. Their stories reflect a broader tension within companies.
As the Millennial generation pervades the workforce, many are demanding flexible hours and alternate work arrangements. And the idea of work/life balance is no longer considered a women’s issue—nor is the concept of “leaning in,” a phrase coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to encourage young women to stay active and engaged at work. Just as more women are “leaning in” to work, men are doing the same by helping fight gender discrimination and becoming more involved on the home front.
Yet at the same time, businesses are under intense pressure to compete and perform on the global stage—and provide the data to prove their effectiveness. Many companies, realizing that they need to appeal to the needs of a new generation, are beginning to offer paternity leave and unlimited vacation.
Making Work Work
How corporate America will strike its own balance between its needs and those of its employees is one of the key questions our society will grapple with over the coming decades. Some companies are working to create humane but productive environments by focusing on developing the right culture to meet their needs, imbuing learning into the DNA of their organizations, and finding ways to be not only a place that does great work, but a great place to work.
Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.