How to Be Better Than Amazon
Criticism has been slowly ramping up against Amazon for the past few months, and it doesn't look like the trend is going to end any time soon. It's for good reason too. Working conditions in their warehouses are closer to the Industrial Revolution than the 21st century, they routinely force small and medium sized cities to bend over backwards to accommodate their demands for their new headquarters (to the point that the new location's workers would essentially be paying their taxes directly to Amazon), and regularly abuse the independent contractors who make their empire possible. Thanks to Amazon and companies like it, the American workforce may be staring down a new era of labor disputes.
The frustrating part is, Amazon could be making huge strides in improving workers' quality of life, rights, and culture. They have the business, money, and influence they'd need to make some hugely beneficial changes. But they don't use them, and their employees are miserable. Instead, generally speaking, smaller companies have the happiest employees. That's the edge smaller companies have on Amazon. Worker satisfaction is a much better indicator of long-term potential for success and reframing your own corporate culture to emphasize satisfaction is an easy way to position yourself to outlast companies like Amazon.
One of the best parts of owning or working for a small business is how flexibility is built into the schedule. It's completely normal for a small business to close for a major family event, unexpected holiday, vacation, or weather-related inconveniences. It's so normal that it'd be far weirder if a local job shop didn't shutter for the owner's daughter's wedding.
Employees rake in the benefits of this flexibility as well. It's far easier to get time off when you work for a small operation instead of a multi-national corporation. Imagine your family calls you up one Monday and says they're putting together a big vacation this coming weekend. If you're working in that job shop and need time off, likely all you need to do is explain the situation to the shop owners. They'll work with you directly to get your shift covered, or at the very least find a solution that works for everyone. If you were working on the line at Amazon, you can kiss that vacation goodbye. You probably didn't bring it up to your boss in the first place.
That kind of flexibility in a schedule makes a huge difference to employees and loyalty and morale will shoot through the stratosphere. An employee who knows that their employer cares about their and their family's well-being is far more likely to turn their job into a career. By understanding your employee has a life outside your business, you've removed one of the biggest causes of stress plaguing employees at huge companies like Amazon. Amazon demands employees work like robots and sacrifice everything for Amazon's bottom line, whereas you know employees' private lives often impact their job, necessitating flexibility if you're going to retain a happy, productive workforce.
There's a potential trade off when you work for a small business. Sometimes they can't afford the same kind of competitive pay larger companies can (not that those larger companies are always willing to pay those rates). What smaller companies can afford is the kind of perks big companies forego.
Small job shops are a perfect example. For many of you, we'd venture to say you're open to employees using company equipment for personal projects, as long as they're properly trained and don't go overboard. Say an employee's son wanted to change the color of his bike frame. A project that small doesn't endanger your or the shop's livelihood, so throwing the frame on the line to get a fresh recoloring is well-within what an employee could expect from their job.
Speaking from more direct personal experience, when we were cutting our teeth in the marketing world online, we worked for a small site that offered steep discounts on products sold on its own online store. That discount also stacked on top of any sales or promotions currently running. We were far more inclined to support that store, seeing as how the site owner thought it important that his employees should be able to afford the things they were selling.
All this talk of perks shouldn't obscure how important it is to still offer traditional benefits. You can offer all the free lunch, schedule flexibility, product discounts, coffee in the break room, ping pong, game consoles, and bean bag chairs you want, but if you're not providing healthcare or retirement benefits for your employees, you won't be able to hold on to anyone above the age of 24 for longer than a year.
It comes down to reasonable expectations. The stark reality is, no matter how fun, cool, or welcoming your small business is for your employees, you have to offer adult benefits if you want to maintain an adult workforce. Otherwise, you cannot reasonably expect to maintain any kind of reliable work force.
We're not trying to insult small businesses that don't offer these benefits (as long as not offering them can be considered reasonable). Boardwalk ice cream shops, theaters during the summer blockbuster season, and all the rest of those stereotypical summer jobs are built on the part-time labor of teenagers and couldn't reasonably be expected to provide a 401(k) for their employees. Mostly because their employees simply haven't grown into that need yet. Their employees just need some spending money for the summer that will hopefully carry them back to high school.
But if you're running anything that should be considered a full time job, from a small sales and marketing firm to an auto shop to a multi-national bank, and you foist the bulk of your work on high schoolers and part-timers, you cannot reasonably expect long-term success. Businesses of every size are built on full-time work forces where individuals in that work force can provide for their families in the present and know their future is secure.
Traditional benefits drastically reduce turnover, ensure you have a reliable, loyal work force, and positions you for long-term success in a way that companies like Amazon currently do not. We know it sounds counter-intuitive, saying Amazon somehow isn't a success. But right now, people are only measuring their power in the short-term. It's a business built on mistreating its employees to the point of sweat shop abuses, setting unsustainable expectations for businesses in the 21st century, and draining revenue from local municipalities. Amazon simply can't survive in the long-term without a serious re-examination of how it conducts business. You, on the other hand, will survive far better. You'll probably even thrive.