Amazon told employees to return to the office. Now they’re walking out

Amazon employees walked out today to protest the retailing giant’s recent mandatory return-to-office policy.

Employees are calling on Amazon for flexibility in how and where they work, as well as putting climate impact front and center in its decision-making, according to a tweet released by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

Although the walkout was open to all Amazon employees across the globe, the main in-person walkout was held at noon at the company’s Seattle headquarters, and some employees participated virtually, reports CNN. 

The walkout came one month into Amazon’s mandatory return-to-office policy that took effect following a memo by Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. Under the policy, employees are required to come into the office at least three times a week.

See also: Struggling with return-to-office? It’s an ‘organizational change problem’

In announcing the policy in February, Jassy said leadership’s position is that three days in the office will lead to a stronger culture, easier collaboration and sharing of innovative ideas among employees, improved learning among colleagues and a greater connection among teams. 

But more than 20,000 Amazon employees signed a petition calling on the retailing giant to reconsider its position, the Associated Press reports.

More than 1,800 Amazon employees pledged to participate in the in-person or virtual walkout across the globe as of Tuesday night, including approximately 870 workers at Amazon’s Seattle locations, according to the Associated Press.

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Amazon is not alone in getting pushback from workers over return-to-office policies. 

In February, employees of IT services titan Cognizant protested at their YouTube Music work site in Austin, Texas, over their employer’s return-to-office policy, according to a report in the Austin Business Journal.  

Listen up to Amazon’s ‘misstep’ with return to office

CHROs are increasingly getting squeezed between CEOs who desire a return to the office and a workforce that may largely wish to retain its flexibility and predominantly work from home.

And compounding the issue for HR leaders is the low unemployment rate. That makes it easier for employees dissatisfied with their company’s return-to-office policy to have a greater chance of landing a high-paying remote position elsewhere.

Will these challenges get harder for HR leaders following the actions taken by Amazon’s employees?

“Pretty clearly, Amazon misread how serious this was to employees, so the lesson for other employers is, do you know where your employees are on this?,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of education and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Josh Bersin, founder and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, holds a similar view and reiterates the need for CEOs and HR executives to listen to their employees.

“This is an example of leadership that is not listening to their own employees. Every study I have read shows that employees want flexibility in their work hours, and location,” Bersin says. “And in many cases, there is no reason for a white-collar worker to show up in the office every single day.”

The walkout Amazon employees took raises the question of whether other companies’ employee groups will mimic this action and even go as far as unionizing their white-collar colleagues.

“At the margin, it certainly matters, but lots of other issues are more important in deciding [to walk out]? such as, can I find another job if my employer fires me?” Cappelli says in regard to other employee groups following Amazon’s lead.

He also notes most white-collar employees are prohibited from unionizing and, for those who can, the risk is extremely great.

“Employers do retaliate,” Cappelli notes. “I don’t think this one issue is enough to turn them that way.”

Josh Bersin

Today’s action may give Amazon’s leaders pause, Bersin says.

“I am not surprised that Amazon workers are protesting,” says Bersin, author of Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World’s Most Enduring, Employee-Focused Organizations. “Usually, when management issues a mandate like this, they are acting on what I consider to be old-fashioned values.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.