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Hi-tech but Simple

Goutam Das     March 17, 2020

Many pillars underpin the future of work. The eight-hour workday is nearly dead; working from anywhere is in vogue; physical work spaces are becoming less structured; independent contractors, or gig workers, are now an important part of the people mix in many companies.

If you were to scout for companies in India that appear ready for this futuristic world, Amazon would be one of them. The company today employs 63,000 full time in India, some of them at the cutting-edge of technology - in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Amazon also engages a large gig workforce, many of whom deliver parcels to our homes. Keeping employees happy across such a wide spectrum isn't easy, but then Amazon's human resources (HR) practice works much like other business units in the company. It is about scaling faster through technology, simplifying processes, and rigorously auditing themselves to disrupt and reinvent HR industry standards. The HR folks at the company like to experiment a lot.

Many of these experiments do work. Amazon has rearranged the pecking order in the 2019 Best Companies to Work For survey. The company ranks No. 2, behind Google and ahead of IT services exporter TCS. The year before, Amazon ranked behind Google, Accenture and TCS. A good benefits package, career-growth path, and challenging work opportunities propelled it up the ladder. Like other good companies, Amazon hires smart people, gets them excited, and then supports them. The culture is that of empowerment.

"I joined Amazon as an intern back in 2015," says Mohana Bhattacharyay, Marketing Innovations Manager, Amazon India. "This is a company of builders and for someone who joined straight from college, I was exposed to a culture of innovative thinking very early in my career. It is one of those few places where experimentation is a way of life and it is considered completely okay to fail in the process," she adds.

Nilesh Potdar, Manager - Software Development, Amazon, thinks the company's obsession with customers makes it a great place to work. Employees are in an environment where they can explore and create "game-changing products and solutions".

Future of Work

A part of the empowerment is the flexibility to work from anywhere. Depending on the business unit, employees can choose to work from home, from their home town, or even from satellite offices. "We came up with something called 'Project Harmony', where we said that employees can work out of their home town - you don't have to come to the city. A lot of women have used this platform to start working for Amazon. One can come to office for an X period of time; and the rest of the time they can work from anywhere," says Deepti Varma, Director, HR, Amazon India.

In cities like Bengaluru that are often traffic-choked, people spend too many hours on the road, which is a productivity killer. Satellite offices allow Amazon employees to operate from close to their homes. As of now, the satellite office concept is in Bengaluru.

"Different teams try different models depending on the need of the business. One-size-fits-all doesn't work at Amazon," Varma says.

With an eye on the future of work, Amazon is also busy reskilling and upskilling its workforce. For instance, the company has computer science graduates working in operations teams, in non-tech roles. There is now a pathway for them to graduate to technology roles if they desire to. "We realised that there is a pool of talent that desire to move into tech roles. Internally, we now have a test. Those who qualify, work for six months with a technical team internally to hone their skills before moving on to a full-time role," says Varma. Similarly, there is also a programme for technical employees to upgrade to becoming ML and AI experts.

Meanwhile, the company's massive 9.5-acre, 15-floor campus in Hyderabad, inaugurated in 2019, defies signs of rigidity. It is fashioned more like a co-working space with multiple breakout zones. Employees can work from any part of the building. Many millennials prefer spaces that are creative and where they can network. This office design mirrors the preference.

Experiments with Bots

In 2019, the HR practice at Amazon experimented a fair bit. One of the more interesting pilots was around Alexa and employee on-boarding. Alexa brings new employees up to date with the culture of Amazon.

"There is a global process, called 'Embark', for on-boarding people. It is a self-service tool using which employees learn about who they need to meet at the company, what to learn... This is the first step," says Varma. "There are hundreds of people joining across the globe, and we want a similar experience irrespective of the geography of joining," she adds.

Once an employee joins and uses Embark, he/she may have more questions. Alexa steps in here and helps them navigate and understand aspects of the culture they come across on a day-to-day basis. "Alexa is like a buddy who can assist you - make the transition easier. Alexa is not taking over the formal on-boarding process," says Varma. "One of our HR tenets is a frustration-free experience for the employee, either for a new employee or those leaving the organisation. We remove barriers," she adds.

Barriers are also removed when it comes to inclusion. Amazon offers same-sex partner insurance cover. It is a good place for fathers, too - both biological dads and those who adopt get up to six weeks leave. And there is no retirement age for any employee in India.

Other organisations, big and small, could take a leaf out of Amazon's books.

@goutam20


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