Tech Power

Amazon is using its tech prowess to keep employees engaged.

Photographs by Reuben Singh Photographs by Reuben Singh

In August last year, Amazon India's country head Amit Agarwal wrote an email to employees encouraging them to log off from work-related emailing and calls after 6pm to ensure work-life balance. Coming from a 'customer obsessed' company fighting another US retailer, Walmart, in a market that is expected to reach revenues of $120 billion by 2020, this was a welcome change.

At its Bengaluru headquarters in the World Trade Centre, the BT team, heading to meet Director, Human Resources, Deepti Varma, met a group of 'Amazonians' in the elevator who were seriously discussing a tech glitch that had to be fixed as soon as possible. When asked if theirs was a high pressure job, one of them said, "Challenges are everywhere, right? But if you are working for a cutting-edge technology company, you have to be prepared for pressure".

Deepti Varma, Head, Human Resources, Amazon India

The work pressure is high but so is the enthusiasm. Jeeta Das, 34, can't hide her excitement while talking about her role as a member of the Alexa Skill team. "Even when you meet a stranger and say you work for Alexa, they have a zillion questions to ask and a zillion comments to make, mostly positive, which gives me a lot of enthusiasm that I bring to work," she says. A large number of people in their 20s or 30s working at Amazon India, a significant chunk of the workforce, feel working for the global tech giant is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Go Global

Amazon India has over 50,000 employees. Its people practices, right from the beginning, have been aligned with that of the Seattle-based parent company. "Amazon's people processes, HR (human resources) processes are the same irrespective of the geography," says Varma. "With high movement of talent across geographies, we want them to have the same experience, (and) talk about the same culture," she says.

Though there are 14 leadership principles that guide Amazon entities across the world, several initiatives started in India are being emulated at Amazon's other subsidiaries. One of them is Atlas , a programme for up-skilling workforce. "Under Atlas, we pick people in operations and groom them into technology roles," she says. Without divulging the number of people trained, she says they were usually associates who have a degree in computer science but would have joined Amazon as an associate in a non-tech role.

Another programme is 'Machine Learning Gurukul' under which employees with basic software development skills get expertise in machine learning or similar skill sets. Exposure to new skills is important, says Varma, adding that up-skilling people by understanding their aspirations and then providing them opportunities within the organisation is an intrinsic part of the system.

Focus on Inclusion

Globally, women account for around 40 per cent of Amazon's workforce. In India, too, the number is more or less the same. While staying true to its global culture, Amazon India has tweaked several policies for the comfort of women employees. "Providing cabs to women, it's a very local nuance of India. And when a woman is expecting, we provide an exclusive cab that is better than what a regular associate gets," says Varma.

However, the big focus areas remain inclusivity, gender sensitisation and women empowerment, and the two programmes that stand out here are - AmazeWIT and AmazeDNI. Launched in 2017, AmazeWIT - Amazon Women in Technology - promotes deeper engagement of women in technology. Amaze DNI - Amazon Diversity and Inclusion - started this year, and aims at building a mindset of inclusivity. "This year, our senior people went through training on what it means to have an unconscious bias and what it means to have inclusivity," says Varma.

The company also follows the concept of conscience keepers. "When we are doing talent reviews, conscience keepers keep our leaders on the ground," says Varma.

Efforts to groom women are not confined to within the company. Amazon Campus Mentoring Series, for instance, is a programme designed to tap talented women in local engineering college campuses and groom them for technology roles through continuous engagement over four-six months. "This has helped us increase the intake of women from campuses this year," says Varma.

Initiatives around inclusion also focus on people with different types of gender orientation. "We have had some senior people who have had sex change, and transgenders work with us at senior levels in India too," says Varma. When people go through a sex change procedure, the company trains the team, and these cases are spoken about openly to remove any stigma attached to it, she explains.

Amazon's fulfilment centres and delivery stations have about 350 speech and hearing impaired employees. One delivery station each at Chennai, Chandigarh and Dule are completely manned by women staff. Delivery stations have traditionally been a male dominated area. Partnering with Mirakle Courier, Amazon also runs two 'silent delivery stations' in Mumbai with 30-35 speech impaired delivery associates.

Two-way Street

One of the biggest reasons for Amazon's employee engagement is its willingness to listen to employees. Under the 'Connections' programme, which the company launched a couple of years ago, a question pops up every day on the employee's computer, and the manager gets a feedback every day. The manager can see dashboards with feedback on six aspects, including the environment, the team, job satisfaction, infrastructure. "In fact, HR gets feedback on what is going on every day. This data, along with machine learning, helps us identify areas that need our focus," says Varma. For instance, one question recently asked was: "Are you empowered to take decisions, and how fast are decisions taken?" The answer resulted in changes to make the organisation more nimble.

While the task of the HR department may have expanded in several ways, Amazon, like many other companies, is investing heavily on automating its HR processes using machine learning. Without divulging details, Varma says, "Our HR processes are much better automated than that of others in the industry." When asked how advanced the system was, Varma said, "Are we using machine learning? The answer is yes." The latest adoption is Alexa, which is at a pilot stage. Varma says several such initiatives are currently at a pilot stage.

So, is it all about work at Amazon? Jhalak Malhotra, an employee, says "not at all". She says every Friday, four-five pm is the happy hour, when her team gets together to play games and listen to music; and at 5pm, they leave the workplace.