How to build a workplace culture like Amazon’s

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How to build a workplace culture like Amazon’s

Many organizations pride themselves on their “company culture”—a phrase you’ve surely seen in job descriptions and asked about in interviews.

But what does it really mean to have a strong culture at your organization?

In an article for CNBC, LinkedIn‘s George Anders delves into the company culture at Amazon to learn how it became the most sought-after employer in the United States. 

Amazon is not known for its workplace perks or modern, high-tech office spaces. But the Seattle-based company still managed to attract 8 million job applications in the last 12 months alone and has grown its employee count 66% to become the second largest private sector employer in the United States.

According to an interview between Anders and Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO of worldwide consumer, what makes Amazon so attractive to jobseekers is the “Day 1” culture. The concept began in 1997, when company founder Jeff Bezos famously stated that Amazon operated in “Day 1” of the internet economy. But Wilke explains that this “Day 1” mentality and “startup” feel still define the company’s culture today.

Read more: 7 universities recognized as “heroes” of work culture

Here’s what Amazon’s “Day 1” culture is all about:

1: Rally your team around a common cause. At Amazon, every decision revolves around what’s best for the customer. Employees constantly strive to improve their services—from frustration-free packaging, to package-delivery drones, to price cuts—with the customer in mind.

This attitude of service “drives you to experiment and invent, to risk and accept failure, and to double down on any discoveries that truly delight customers,” according to Bezos. “Plus, it’s way more fun,” he adds.

The student-as-customer philosophy has become a touchy topic in higher ed, but whichever side of the debate you fall on, there’s something to learn from Amazon’s service mindset. Campus leaders can encourage their teams to put students first in every decision and to continually adapt their services to the changing needs of students.

2: Encourage experiments. To improve customer satisfaction, employees must experiment—even if those experiments don’t always work out. Amazon encourages employees to take small risks because leaders recognize that, most of the time, the cost of failure is low. This mentality attracts people who want to be at the forefront of innovation and creates a stimulating work environment with ample learning opportunities.  

To foster a culture of innovation on campus, start by assembling a diverse team and defining clear goals, two University of Michigan leaders recommended in a 2016 article for EdSurge. Encourage team members to dream big during the early, brainstorming phases of a project. Then, to help refine your ideas, ask for feedback from students and the broader campus community, they suggested.

Learn why managers matter in retaining top talent

3: Embrace simplicity. Amazon’s sparsely decorated, packed workspaces are intentional. “We don’t want to spend money on things that customers aren’t willing to pay for,” Wilke notes. Leaders say this philosophy encourages employees to solve problems creatively and avoid unnecessary expenditures.

To respond to financial challenges that linger from the recession, many colleges have also gotten creative about reducing costs and raising revenue. One increasingly common strategy is sharing services. For example, five institutions in western Massachusetts consolidated their police departments in 2009, which allows them to collaborate better and provide more training to their officers (Anders, CNBC, 3/23).

Related: What colleges can learn from Amazon’s HQ2

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