Andy Jassy’s empathetic return-to-office memo is a leadership case study in how to manage uncertainty, Fortune 500 consultants say

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy motions with his hands on stage at the GeekWire Summit.
Andy Jassy, Amazon’s CEO, sent out his latest company-wide memo on Monday. Dan DeLong/GeekWire
  • Earlier this week, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy sent a company-wide memo explaining return-to-office plans.
  • Fortune 500 communications consultants analyzed the memo for Insider.
  • They said Jassy displayed transparency and empathy – key ingredients when managing uncertainty.

The pandemic fundamentally changed where and how we work, and CEOs – including Amazon’s Andy Jassy – are still grappling with how to communicate uncertainties to their teams.

In a recent company-wide memo, Jassy nimbly explained why Amazon’s leadership has taken so long to decide when employees should return to the office. He declared that decisions on who would return to the office and how often would be made by team leaders. The letter follows similar notes from other top companies, such as Apple, Google, and PwC, that have been rolling out their own return-to-office policies.

Communications consultants who work with Fortune 500 companies said Jassy’s memo was a case study in transparency and navigating uncharted territory.

Suzanne Bates, the author of “Speak Like a CEO” and a managing director and partner at the leadership consultancy BTS, called the memo a blueprint for other companies seeking to mitigate a crisis.

“It’s powerful, timely, authentic, and empathetic,” Bates said. “It’s a lesson in that you can’t just make a decision if you want employee buy-in and leave it at that. You have to explain your reasoning, your process.”

Showcasing transparency

As with many companies, Amazon has delayed its decision on returning to the office. In June, employees were told they’d have an answer in September. Then the decision was delayed until January 2022. Jassy began the memo by acknowledging the back-and-forth and empathizing with employees who are coping with paralyzing uncertainty. This is an effort to reestablish trust, Bates said.

“We’ve never been through something like this before, and hope we never encounter it again,” Jassy wrote in the 850-word memo. “When are we really going back to the office, what will that really be like, how will I allocate my time between the office and home, how will others do it?”

When employees “see a question that looks like a question they’ve been asking, they know that the CEO is hearing the voice of the employee,” Bates said. “They think, ‘The CEO is attuned to what we’re talking about.'”

Eric Yaverbaum, the CEO of Ericho Communications, mentioned how Jassy then pivoted to showing vulnerability. Jassy said that he, like many leaders, didn’t have all the answers.

“Look, there are a lot of question marks. And he outlines those. He gives people context. What he methodically lays out is his direction, while leaving room to make adjustments,” Yaverbaum said. “That’s a smart move.”

Both Bates and Yaverbaum said that in a time of such uncertainty, it’s important for a leader to showcase their process of thinking. It may reassure those who might feel as though the situation is out of their control.

Delegation and gratitude

The central question of the memo – when will workers be able to return to the office? – is expected to be determined by directors. Bates said that having the actual decisions be made on a team-by-team basis gives employees the feeling of more agency.

If employees feel like they have no voice in a process, it creates chaos, she said. Jassy delegating that responsibility to managers gives employees the chance to have a say in the process.

In a situation that’s evolving in real time, delegating is a powerful tool for leaders, Bates and Yaverbaum said. Both consultants also agreed that Jassy clearly and carefully outlined the next steps. He asked employees to have patience, thanked them, and gave a specific date by which they would hear about new developments.

“Leadership has got to be empathetic. If you’re not understanding life through the lens of everyone else, you’re not going to get very far,” Yaverbaum said. “His memo shows empathy.”

Bates said Jassy could have mentioned that he’s still concerned about on-the-ground workers’ safety. She said including that specific topic would be her only tweak.

“Overall, this memo is a really good guideline for CEOs to pay attention to,” she added. “They should ask themselves the question: ‘Are we communicating this way enough with our employees?'”