What is life like at Amazon’s Seattle HQ?

Dogs are welcome and the bananas are free, but rents in the Pacific city are notoriously high

An entrance to an Amazon building.
An entrance to an Amazon building.NOAH SEELAM AFP

Most of the companies that dominate the technology sector are now based on vast, isolated campuses: Google in Mountain View, Facebook in Menlo Park, Apple in Cupertino, and Microsoft in Redmond. But the decision to move away from cities has created its own problems. Apple’s “spaceship” campus has been criticized for the distance between the parking lot and the workplace. Microsoft uses an Uber-style car reservation system to travel between buildings, along with shuttles; while Facebook now plans to build homes on site for its workforce in a bid to persuade employees to move out of San Francisco.

Amazon, on the other hand, always intended to stay in downtown Seattle, close to the iconic Space Needle and the Museum of Pop Culture funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Google and Facebook have also opened offices nearby. In total, Amazon has 31 buildings. When the company made the decision to expand in the city center in 2005, it had 12,000 employees. Today, that figure is more than 40,000. John Schoettler, Amazon VP of Global Real Estate and Facilities, and who has been with the company for 17 years and is  responsible for the 225 Amazon centers around the world, including offices and warehouses, explains that the reason for remaining in the city center “is to attract employees who are urban, dynamic, who want to walk to work and make their lives near their office.”

The type of employee we want to attract is urban, dynamic, who wants to walk to work and make their life near the office John Schoettler, Amazon VP of Global Real Estate and Facilities

There are no logos or any other indicator that you are in an Amazon building. Instead, each office has a name: Prime, for the company's loyalty service; Alexandria, after the most famous library of the ancient world; and Rufus, named after the Corgi an employee used to bring into work each day and that prompted the company's dog-friendly policies. Day 1 is the main building, where Jeff Bezos, CEO, has his office.

The entrance to Day 1 is unique, with its own convenience store stocked with flowers, ready-to-eat food, along with a huge variety of cheeses and wines. Employees can take what they want and put it in a basket. The system recognizes who they are and charges them for the products without waiting in a cashier line or having to swipe their credit cards. This is Amazon Go, a business model currently in beta mode and that will be rolled out when it is reliable enough.

On the fifth floor, employees are responsible for the decor. Amazon tries to encourage the sculptors, graphic artists and photographers among its staff to decorate the office, albeit after hours.

One of the hallmarks of Amazon is a Spartan approach to spending

Employees can eat Chinese, Mexican or Italian. There’s also a salad bar, which has proved so popular it is often impossible to find a table. Schoettler explains: “It can only accommodate one third of the staff. It’s a deliberate policy so people spend money in the surrounding businesses and get to know more people.”

Employees do not work on Macs, unless they are programmers or technical staff, and they are not allowed to customize their workstation until they reach a certain level on the hierarchy. Very few fly business class, although they would be at other companies at a similar level. One of the hallmarks of Amazon is a Spartan approach to spending.

The only concession are the “banistas,” or banana distributors, employed since 2015, and who have since handed out 2.2 million bananas, managing a record 8,000 in a single day. Why bananas? They are nutritious, everyone likes them, and their shape is reminiscent of Amazon’s smile logo.

Room for dogs, but not kids

Notably, none of Amazon’s offices provide child care. But there are gardens for dogs, which have to sign in and are given their own identity cards. Open areas have been created where employees and their pooches can play fetch and socialize with other dogs.

There are 12 levels in the Amazon employee hierarchy, with only Jeff Bezos at level 12

Experience is visibly displayed at Amazon: employees wear different colored badges for every five years with the company, starting with blue, then yellow, red, and finally purple after more than 15 years. Similarly, there are 12 ranks: so far, Bezos is alone at level 12. Workers who pack and ship the products in warehouses are at level 1. New employees are hired with upward mobility in mind and managers are told to interview candidates on the basis they might someday be fit to take their place.

Amazon's Seattle office
Amazon's Seattle office

Bezos believes in making an impact on his immediate environment, and in Seattle this will be through The Spheres, which consists of three glass and metal bubbles still under construction and partly designed by the city zoo’s head of flora. It will be a place to relax, hold meetings, and imagine yourself in a tropical climate, with a constant temperature of 21° centigrade. The idea is for a piece of the Amazon in the heart of Seattle.

But many long-standing Seattle residents are unhappy at the impact of Amazon on their city. Rents have soared, driving people out of the center, and there is widespread homelessness. Amazon has tried to mitigate its impact through a $1 million donation to Fare Start, a network of soup kitchens that, besides food, provides training to find employment in the hotel industry. In its latest acquisition of land, Amazon bought Mary’s Shelter, a refuge for the homeless it is renovating and will donate to the city, boosted by a program to help people rebuild their lives. Initially, it will house 200 families.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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