Incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy on why remote work hurts innovation: ‘You don’t riff the same way’

Amazon workers
Workers cross in front of the Spheres on the Amazon campus in downtown Seattle, before the pandemic forced employees to work from home. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

As GeekWire reported earlier Wednesday, Amazon is headed back to the office after letting people work from home for the past year.

“Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively,” Amazon told employees in a memo.

It’s a key strategic move that has implications for not only the company’s corporate workforce, but also the vibrancy of the area surrounding its Seattle headquarters and growing presence in Bellevue, Wash.

The news garnered attention also because it differs from other large employers in Washington state such as Zillow and Microsoft, which are embracing more of a hybrid approach where employees split time between the office and home.

So why does Amazon want its folks to come back? One possible answer: innovation.

Andy Jassy, the longtime Amazon Web Services boss who will replace Jeff Bezos as Amazon’s CEO later this year, talked about some of the benefits and downsides to remote work in an interview with CNBC in December.

Jassy said “invention” is hard to do virtually compared to people brainstorming together in person.

“You just don’t riff the same way,” he said, “so it’s really changed the way that we’ve had to think about how we drive innovation, and how we solicit information from our builders and the types of meetings that we run.”

Jassy said invention “tends to be sloppy.”

“It’s not like you can organize 45 minutes and say, ‘we’re going to invent this product right now,’” he said.

Instead, that process happens with an initial idea that evolves into something else, with people “riffing on top of what one another says.”

“They interrupt people, and they get animated, and then you finish the meeting and you don’t really quite get there, but three people leave the meeting and start working on a whiteboard outside that conference room,” Jassy said.

That process is much harder to replicate in a virtual work environment, despite the rise and improvement of collaboration software over the past few years, Jassy added.

Speaking on a recent GeekWire Podcast, Peter Lee, corporate vice president of research and incubations at Microsoft, talked about the impact on innovation due to the pandemic and remote work, especially for transformational technologies that can take decades to develop.

“So much of the invention process traditionally happens in ‘garage’ type settings that have been designed and tuned over decades to stimulate and ‘catch’ great ideas,” Lee said. “I think by the middle of 2021 we might actually see some signs of whether the pace of innovation is being affected — in a positive or negative way.”

For himself, Jassy said he simply misses being around people. “There’s just this connection and chemistry you get, this bonding you get, being in person. I miss that.”

Here’s more from Jassy’s CNBC interview:

On remote work and hiring: “It’s really changed the way we’ve all thought about hiring. In the past we’ve tried to hire people in locations where we have critical mass, because we thought it was better for people’s career development and easier for them to collaborate. We realized if you have somebody in a particular location who is willing to work the hours to be able to collaborate, you can do it very efficiently.”

On meetings: “It’s changed how we think about all of our remote teammates. Most meetings largely take place in one physical location, and then people plug in remotely. But they are a little bit off to the side; they can’t participate in the meeting as fully as you like. With everybody being remote and everyone just getting one square, we have contributions and participation on a much more even playing field. It’s really changed the ideas we’ve had and the discussions we’ve had. Even when we go back to having meetings in person, we will continue to incorporate a lot of the things we learned in virtual meetings to make sure we get the right engagement from all of our remote teammates.”