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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Amid return-to-office push, Amazon opens new, homey Bellevue tower


SEATTLE — As Amazon calls employees back to the office, it’s hoping newly designed spaces will soften the distinction between days at home and days that start with a commute.

Inside its new Bellevue office tower, there are couches and lounge chairs, minifridges, dog beds and large outdoor decks with TVs streaming music videos.

On the “head count floors,” where employees’ cubicles live, Amazon designed the space to “feel a little more like home,” according to Steve Erickson, from the architecture and planning firm SABA. “We really did some thinking about what we might do differently.”

Amazon opened its Sonic office tower — located at 555 108th Ave. N.E., in downtown Bellevue — in September, months after it began requiring employees to work from the office at least three times a week. It has built out 450,000 square feet, or 20 floors, of the 42-story building so far and has roughly 1,000 people assigned there.

The office tower is the latest development in Amazon’s Bellevue campus that is expected to include eight buildings and 25,000 employees. Since announcing new construction in Bellevue in 2019, Amazon has touted the city as the focus of most of its expansion efforts in the Puget Sound area — sparking concerns about what that could mean for jobs in Seattle. Nearly four years later, the expansion to Bellevue has not materialized at the scale and speed once anticipated.

In 2020, Amazon pledged to bring 25,000 jobs to its Bellevue campus in “the next few years.” Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic upended office culture, the company slowed down hiring across the board and Amazon cut nearly 27,000 jobs in an effort to trim costs. It cut another “several hundred” jobs earlier this month.

Amazon currently has 11,000 employees based in Bellevue, according to an Amazon spokesperson, a number that has ticked up slightly since last year. Its Bellevue presence is small compared with its head count in Seattle, where Amazon has 55,000 employees working from its South Lake Union campus.

On Thursday, following a tour of its new office tower, a spokesperson said Amazon still expects to bring 25,000 jobs to Bellevue in the next few years.

It is committed to reaching 25,000 employees based there, the spokesperson said, but did not set a date for when it might reach that milestone.

Amid the shift to remote and hybrid work, Amazon announced in July 2022 it would pause future construction on its Bellevue campus. At the time, it said it would complete building floors 1-19 of the Sonic office tower — the one it opened to the press on Wednesday — but would pause construction of other parts of the building and other facilities in Bellevue.

Spokesperson Zach Goldsztejn said Wednesday the pause in construction remains in place.

The company did not share estimates for when it will finish building out the Sonic tower or how many employees will be based there when it is complete. Because Amazon is experimenting with different layouts, seating options and amenities, the head count will depend on the design of each floor, it said.

It finished and furnished floors 1-19, and floor 32, which Amazon has dubbed its “restorative floor.” There, employees can sit in cozy booths and listen to the crackle of a fireplace powered by water vapor; because Sonic is an all-electric building, the fireplace doesn’t give off any heat, but it does “provide a vibe,” Erickson said. The restorative floor was meant to be a calming space for employees but because so many workers like it, it can get noisy, Erickson said happily Wednesday.

The first floor is meant to feel like the start of a journey, Erickson said, with snacks for sale on one wall, a diner across the hall, a camper van parked in one corner and a replica of a cozy cabin space in another. There, Amazon has hung a singing bass on the wall.

Like many Amazon buildings, the newest office tower in Bellevue is named after an internally used code name for a secret Amazon project. In this case, Sonic got its name from Amazon’s project to launch Prime Now in Canada and France, said Gina Klem, the director of workplace development at Amazon.

The 1,000 employees based there are working in operations, support and tech, Klem said.

Near their desks, employees have lockers to store belongings, open storage racks with cubbies and more lounge areas for group meetings. The cubicles are each surrounded by two or three chunks of soft, acoustic fabric, replacing cubicle walls with something that each individual can adjust or remove.

At Sonic, Amazon has incorporated a new type of work environment called “team suites.” There, different groups book a space for “dedicated work,” according to Klem. Inside, there is just about every type of work area employees could imagine — cubicles, two-seater high-top tables, conference rooms and couches.

Amazon tested the design in its Blackfoot building on Eighth Avenue in South Lake Union before building 10 to 12 suites in Sonic, Klem said. It also plans to incorporate the suites into its second headquarters in Arlington, Va.

The suites include large TV screens and are set up for virtual meetings. Though, “ideally, everyone’s here,” Klem said.

The return to office has been an “adjustment,” she continued.

“What my role is and what I focus on is as people come back, what are the spaces that we can deliver for employees that work for how they’re working and the work they’re getting done?” Klem said. “What we are hearing is enthusiasm in the ability to connect and collaborate with one another, and in the different types of spaces for the different types of work.”