Amazon real estate chief: ‘I want to change the way that people work within the four walls’

The interior of the Amazon Spheres in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kaitlyn Wang)

Amazon doesn’t just innovate on behalf of customers. The tech giant also comes up with new ideas to help its own employees.

That’s playing out with how Amazon is thinking about its physical workspaces, according to comments from Amazon’s global real estate chief John Schoettler at an event in Seattle on Wednesday evening.

Resource: Full list of Amazon office buildings

A panel discussion at the Museum of History Industry with top executives focused on innovation happening within South Lake Union, where Amazon has helped completely transform a once sleepy industrial neighborhood into a bustling urban tech hub.

Asked about future innovation opportunities in and around SLU, Matthew Trunnell, chief data officer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, noted how traffic and transportation needs improvement. He also said the traditional work structure of eight hours per day, five days per week may not be optimal in today’s world.

“There’s a lot of room for innovation about how we work and how we live that’s different than the innovation we are each driving in our core businesses,” said Trunell, whose research center landed in SLU nearly three decades ago.

That sparked Schoettler to talk about how he and his real estate team at Amazon are reimagining the modern workplace, given how employees are increasingly working outside of the traditional office. He said he wants to “change the way that people work within the four walls” and that Amazon needs to “think about how to utilize our space better.”

“We see space changing, and we’re super excited about that,” added Schoettler, who joined Amazon in 2001 and oversees a footprint that includes 38 million square feet of office space across 36 countries.

Amazon’s global real estate chief John Schoettler speaks at MOHAI in Seattle on Wednesday evening. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Schoettler said he has people working “day and night” to come up with new ideas and experiments that help create the best working environment for Amazon employees.

“It’s not just innovation on behalf of our customers,” Schoettler said. “My customer is the Amazon employee.”

Some of that strategy is already playing out at Amazon offices around the globe and at its Seattle HQ, where the company opened its eye-catching Spheres building last year and has built various other creative spaces.

“There are little surprises scattered throughout the architecture of our office buildings, everything from nooks to entire floors where Amazonians can leave their desks behind,” reads a company blog post from last year. “These are spots to re-focus, unwind, collaborate, meet friends for lunch, or get the benefit of a fresh vantage point.”

Amazon Jeopardy
The view from the crowd of the giant TV screen showing “Jeopardy” in Amazon’s Doppler tower. (Kurt Schlosser / GeekWire)

Amazon provided this statement from Schoettler in response to a GeekWire inquiry.

“My team is working hard to innovate and pioneer new space configurations to make sure employees are in spaces that feel and work best for them so they can innovate and passionately serve customers. We look at a variety of plans, from open seating to casual and alternative work spaces, with an eye toward creating work environments that are efficient, interesting, and collaborative.”

Amazon is not the only company responding to changing employee expectations as flexible and remote work becomes more common, particularly for younger people. Assigned desks and cubicles are on their way out, while lounge areas and collaborative workspaces are popular.

“This new workforce will transform not only the atmosphere in work environments, but the physical workspaces themselves,” wrote Andy Oziemblo, CEO of Cubicle Concepts, in a post on Quartz. “With fewer employees coming into the office, some workers popping in and out throughout the week, and employers who are beginning to offer more flexible environments within the office, the modern workplace will transform accordingly.”

Schoettler on Wednesday recalled how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos instructed his real estate team to read a book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built before the company embarked on its huge headquarters build-out in the SLU neighborhood.

“We tried to future-proof a lot of our buildings from what we knew at the time,” Schoettler said. “We’ve also gone back in legacy buildings and made changes.”

Amazon’s Day 1 tower on the company’s corporate campus just north of downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Since landing in SLU a decade ago, Amazon has grown its footprint to 12 million square feet of space across nearly 40 buildings that house 50,000-plus employees. It has invested more than $5 billion in the neighborhood, Schoettler said.

Schoettler retold the story of how Bezos wanted to keep Amazon in Seattle when deciding where to consolidate its Seattle offices in the late 2000s. “I think the type of employee that we’re going to want to attract and retain will want to live in the urban environment,” Bezos told Schoettler.

“I brought him down to the South Lake Union neighborhood and walked him around,” Schoettler recalled. “He said, ‘I like this place; it has soul.’ It was a lot of old buildings. … We looked at a variety of options, but South Lake Union was very cool. And when you think about the intersection of innovation, with what these great companies are doing and what my great company is doing, I think it’s no mistake that we ended up here.”

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