Amazon employees return to campus, bringing hope and traffic to downtown

After months of working from home, Amazon's 55,000 Seattle employees are returning to the company's offices, giving local business leaders hope for a boost to downtown's economic recovery.

Amazon employees return to campus, bringing hope and traffic to downtown Inc., (Nasdaq : AMZN), welcomed its employees back to the office for the first time in three years.

It was a lot like the first day of class.

King County Metro buses navigated through the usual traffic jam on Mercer Street as drivers lined Seventh Avenue, between Virginia and Blanchard Streets, waiting for their turn to park in the office towers of the company.

On the campus of Amazon, red-shirted MealPal scouts, who offer a discounted lunch program to office workers, handed out postcards welcoming back Amazon's tech and corporate workers. The banana boxes were stacked in a loading bay in the Day 1 building of Amazon, ready to replenish the banana stands outside the Spheres.

Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon, stood in Day 1's lobby greeting employees as a principal would greet students.

"Amazing sunny office return day!" "Bananas and dogs, collaborations, real energy around campus, in SLU, in the halls," tweeted Guy Palumbo on Tuesday, Amazon's Director of Public Policy for HQ1. "Small business are packed. It is SO wonderful to be back with everyone. "It's always day 1."

Amazon's official return to its offices began on Monday. Employees are expected to be in the office at least three times a week. Last month, the company published a list with building readiness dates which showed that none of the Seattle-area office would be ready for employees before Tuesday.

Amazon's 55,000 Seattle employees will likely not return all at once. Some offices will not be ready until May.

Seattle's business leaders are hopeful that the return of workers will boost downtown's economy.

When Amazon announced that it would be bringing back employees, Jon Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association said, "We can use this wonderful news to create a 'flywheel effect' and attract more workers downtown, and to further efforts to increase the weekday foot-traffic, which is crucial for the continued recovery and growth of our small business, restaurants, and arts and culture venues."

It's time to change gears

Downtown has struggled to increase foot traffic. Although office worker foot traffic is above 40% since July 2022's levels, it still hasn't cracked 50%.

Closed or vacated downtown businesses, particularly those that are frequented by workers in the office, have been making headlines. Nike, a footwear and apparel company, announced that it would be leaving its store at Sixth Avenue & Pike Street and opening a new one in Bellevue Square. Even Amazon closed a few Go convenience shops in Seattle.

Velo Bike Shop, located just across the street at 2151 Sixth Ave. in Seattle and after 55 years of existence, is closing its doors.

Lloyd Tamura did not say that the decision was due to low foot traffic. The shop, along with many other businesses, struggled to deal with supply-chain issues during the pandemic. "It was time to change gears," said Lloyd Tamura.

Amazon's return of employees is expected to benefit small businesses, but the company also gave small businesses more than $20 million in cash grants, rent relief, and other benefits through its Neighborhood Small Businesses Relief Fund over the past three years, according to an Amazon spokesperson in an email. These funds were distributed to both businesses inside and outside the company's building.

The spokesperson stated that "our real estate strategy is centered around helping to create 18-hour districts, where people can live, work and shop, as well as relax."

Other follow suit

Amazon's decision to return to the office may also encourage more companies to abandon remote work and adopt hybrid policies that rely on fixed in-person days. Redfin and DocuSign have told their employees that they will be returning to the office twice a week in the past few weeks.

Lyft has a small presence near Seattle's Pioneer Square. Last week, it informed its employees that they will be enforcing in-person working days.

Other major employers in the Puget Sound area have already implemented return-to-office programs.

Google told its employees to return by April. Meta has not rolled back its remote work policies but it has removed positions for remote work from its job listings. Starbucks has told its employees that they must work in the office three days a week at least starting on January 31. According to a memo obtained by the Business Journal, corporate T-Mobile workers were instructed to return to work at least three times per week in May 2022, or four days if they are at director level.

Microsoft has adopted hybrid work policies that stipulate, depending on the position, either only on-site, 50% or 100% of work can be done from home.

Amazon's return doesn't mean a reopening. Some teams have been working in the offices for several months. According to an internal document obtained from the Business Journal, the cloud sales center team at Amazon's Frontier Office located at 2205 Seventh Ave. in New York City has been there since January.

Amazon Web Services employee, who requested anonymity in the Business Journal, said: "We have been working two days per week for some time now. I don't believe adding another day would be too bad for my team."

The plan to return to the office was met with a lot opposition. Beth Galetti, the company's head of human resources, rejected flatly a petition by employees asking for the plan to be reversed. An internal Slack channel that advocates remote work is active since February.

An Amazon software engineer, who spoke to The Business Journal on condition of anonymity, said: "I accepted the role after verbally confirming that I would not be expected to come into the office."

"That was following Jassy’s announcement in October 2021, that decisions regarding remote work would be taken at the director level because there is no one size fits all approach to how each team works. Jassy seems to have gone back on her word. My director has never reneged on his promise.