Five Ways Leaders Can Promote Work-life Harmony During the Pandemic

 Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources at AWS

by Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources at AWS

Sustaining harmony under normal circumstances isn’t always easy, and the pandemic has made this even more challenging. Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources at AWS, shares his approach on how to help employees navigate through the challenges and opportunities of working during this crisis.

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Work-life harmony is on a lot of people’s minds right now. At Amazon, we think of work-life harmony as when you’re able to be energized and present both at work and outside of work. Jeff Bezos once explained this concept in terms of a flywheel, with the energy from one part of your life helping to fuel the other.

Sustaining harmony under normal circumstances isn’t always easy, and the pandemic has made this even more challenging. The traditional guardrails that have helped people manage work-life, like driving to work, social gatherings, childcare, or vacations, have changed abruptly and are continuing to evolve. I’ve had a lot customers ask how we’ve approached these unexpected challenges at AWS.

Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources, AWS

For Amazonians, the Day 1 mindset is so much a part of our approach that adjusting to changes is something we’re fairly used to. Jeff Bezos formed the concept of Day 1 in the early days of Amazon. It means that we should treat every day at Amazon like it’s the first day at a new startup. It means focusing on what the present and future call for, not what’s worked in the past. It means we embrace and expect change.

The Day 1 concept gives our employees permission to look at what's in front of them and make the best decision, which might be different than what made sense previously. That’s what I see employees and leaders doing at AWS as they embrace the challenges and opportunities of working during this crisis.

As VP of Human Resources at AWS, I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people about this topic. I’d like to share some of the ways Amazonians are leaning into the Day 1 concept and our Amazon Leadership Principles to find their new work-life harmony.

1. When possible, choose guidance over instructions

When so many drastic changes happen all at once, like offices and schools closing and travel bans, the disruption has a ripple effect that touches everyone’s lives in unique ways. Naturally, people have questions for their employers about how to handle this. For example, employees are wondering if they can change their working hours so they can help care for or home school a child, or if they should postpone a work trip or meet virtually instead.

When it comes to the safety of our essential workers, we have to be more explicit when answering questions because there are procedures in place for their protection. But in other settings, it’s not necessary or possible to answer every question. So instead, at AWS, we’ve tried to give employees as much flexibility as we possibly can.

For example, instead of instructing employees who should come back to the office and when, we sent out guidance: “Employees who work in a role that can effectively be done from home are welcome to do so until June 30, 2021.” Although many employees have remained at home, some have also decided to return. Because that’s what worked best for them. Employees choose, within the boundaries of some guidance, how they want to solve the challenges ahead of them and how they want to approach work for themselves.

2. Check the pulse of your workforce

For the last few years, we’ve used a daily feedback program, Connections, to better understand our workforce. Every day thousands of Amazon employees have the option to answer a question about work. This information is used to improve the workplace, and many of the daily questions during the pandemic have been related to employees working in unprecedented circumstances.

In addition to the data we’ve collected through Connections, we’ve also had conversations on certain topics to dig deeper. And we’ve been asking the same questions throughout the pandemic to track how things are changing. This information has been invaluable in understanding employee sentiment and identifying opportunity for more meaningful support.

If organizations take the time to listen to their workforce, they may be surprised by the information they uncover. Something that surprised me, in a good way, is that right now our manager satisfaction scores for AWS are literally the highest I've ever seen in my career. This tells me our managers are doing an excellent job of staying connected with their employees and providing support where they can. If we hadn’t collected this data, we may not have recognized these extraordinary efforts and the valuable role our managers have been playing.

By collecting feedback, organizations can make data-driven decisions about how to support their employees and how they can make the biggest impact. This aligns closely with the Amazon Leadership Principle “Dive Deep.” This principle encourages our employees to stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and be skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ.

3. Embrace the background

This crisis has forced people to share a more complete picture of who they are, more of their full authentic self. I’ve met and seen more family members of my co-workers, including pets, in the last six months than in the last decade. Before the crisis, I think people were more uncomfortable with this. But now that we’re all in the same boat, it’s like the walls are coming down. From what we’ve seen, it’s a good thing.

It makes me think of one of my favorite Amazon Leadership Principles—“Learn and Be Curious,” which encourages our employees to never stop learning. And now we’re learning more about each other. In fact, one of the things that we've found in our research is that inclusion among employees, this sense of “I feel included,” has actually gone up significantly and stayed very high throughout this crisis.

I would have never predicted that during a time when we have been pulled further apart, that inclusion would go up as much as it has. I think it’s because we’re relating to each other on a more human level now. It's not just Ian, my coworker. It's Ian, who's in an environment with his kids learning at home. He's got stuff going on with his family and his house.

Learning more about each other also gives us more empathy, which is important for relationship building. For this reason, I would encourage organizations to embrace this new window we have into each other’s lives, as opposed to hiding it.

Embrace the background

4. Make time for breaks

Despite what most people would think, working from home doesn’t always create more free time. Instead of replacing the new time they have available with down time, because they don’t have to commute anymore, they replace it with more working. Indeed, the temptation to produce more when work is so readily accessible is too much for some people. As a result, they find themselves working more at home than they did in the office.

Another issue is that people aren’t taking as much time off, which compounds the problem. For some, it’s because they can’t travel anywhere, so it seems like a waste of vacation days. For others, they’re saving the vacation days in case there is a resurgence in the virus and quarantine restrictions leave them without childcare, again. Unfortunately, I think this pandemic is lasting longer than any of us had originally expected, and it still might be a while before it’s over. In the meantime, everyone needs a break.

All of this combined with the stresses of the pandemic means people are experiencing burnout. I never imagined it would be so hard to convince people to work less. But if employees don’t take time out for themselves, their family, or whatever else brings them joy, they won’t be well. And this usually negatively impacts their work in the long run, having the opposite effect of what they wanted.

We all make better decisions when our minds are clear. That’s why breaks and rest are important. Here are a few ways I make sure I get them: I block times on my calendar for breaks throughout the day, shut down the computer when I’m done working so I’m not tempted to peek back in, and take my vacation time, even if it’s just to camp out in the backyard with my kids.

5. Model healthy behavior

As the saying goes: “It’s what you do, not what you say, that matters.” For example, if a manager encourages employees to log off at night and take breaks throughout the day, but clearly isn’t following this advice themselves, it’s unlikely their team will. Nobody wants to feel like they’re the “slacker” if the rest of the team is working non-stop. But working all the time is not healthy or sustainable.

For managers, this is a great way to “Earn Trust,” which is another Amazon Leadership Principle. People have greater trust for someone when their words match their actions. In addition to making sure I take time off, I’ve done a few other things so my team can see that I practice what I preach. For example, instead of hurrying my children away if they walk by my desk during a video meeting, I acknowledge them and, sometimes, even introduce them to the other people in my meeting.

The customer impact

Not only does having work-life harmony benefit employees, it benefits customers, too. It’s kind of like when you’re on an airplane, and the flight attendant instructs passengers to “put your oxygen mask on before helping others.” That’s because if you run out of oxygen yourself, you can’t help anyone else.

When employees come to work energized and inspired, they will take better care of customers, have more innovative ideas, and be better positioned to take on challenges, which seem to be in a never ending supply this year. We don’t have all the answers, but by following the Day 1 philosophy and leaning into our Amazon Leadership Principles, many of our employees have navigated their way through these choppy waters and found a new work-life harmony.


This post is part of a new Reimagining the Workforce Blog series where AWS and Amazon executives are sharing their experiences and insights during the pandemic. If you’d like to see other posts from the series, click here.

About the author

Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources, AWS

Ian Wilson
Vice President of Human Resources, AWS

Ian Wilson is the Vice President of Human Resources for Amazon Web Services (AWS) since joining in 2018. His AWS HR team operates in dozens of countries, supporting thousands of employees, to cultivate the AWS culture, grow talent, and build the capability to enable AWS customers.

Prior to his current role, Ian was the HR leader for Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group, and lead HR initiatives for Hardware Engineering, Manufacturing and Supply Chain, and the Interactive Entertainment Business (Xbox). Earlier with Microsoft, Ian was based in Beijing, China, as the Regional HR Director for the Greater China Region. Prior to joining Microsoft, Ian spent seven years at Allied Signal/Honeywell’s aerospace and industrial automation businesses in a variety of line HR generalist and specialist roles.

Ian holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He lives in Issaquah, WA with his wife and two children. Ian currently serves on the Board of Directors for Kindering, a not-for-profit early childhood developmental center in Washington.

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