Not A Happy Accident: How Google Deliberately Designs Workplace Satisfaction

While much has been said about Google's enviable employee perks, those just scratch the surface of how it totally re-engineered traditional HR to ensure a happy and profitable workplace.

“Imagine a world where most organizations were the best place to work. Imagine what we could be getting done on the planet if it were true.”--Karen May, VP of people development, Google

Few businesses in the world’s history have had as profound an impact on human life in such a short period of time as Google.

Pause to consider that just 15 years ago, Google’s search engine, now used globally over 100 billion times a month, didn’t exist. Products most of us take for granted, including Google Maps, Gmail, Translator, Google Earth, and Android all were created since 1998 when Larry Page and Sergey Brin cofounded the firm with the soaring ambition of making the world’s information available to everyone.

To punctuate the obvious, Google’s inventive achievements in a mere decade and a half are simply stunning.

But in Google’s short lifespan, it has also grown from a two-man startup to an organization with nearly 37,000 employees in 40 different countries. This notable and relentless workforce expansion begs the very important question: How have they successfully managed and integrated all these new people while concurrently motivating them to be consistently loyal, ambitious, innovative, and productive?

Over the past few years, the media’s coverage of Google has given considerable focus to the incomparable--and seemingly over-the-top--perks the company bestows on its workers. We’ve all seen photos of the bowling alleys, billiard tables, and people getting free haircuts during work hours. We know everyone gets free food, gym memberships, and even Wi-Fi-outfitted shuttle rides to work.

Perhaps because so few of us can relate to an organization with this much generosity, we’ve instinctively judged them as an outlier. When we hear about Lego rooms and pets being allowed at work, we draw the conclusion that Google’s phenomenal success, not to mention its top ranking on Fortune's “Best Places To Work” list for the past two years, is entirely a result of these seemingly extravagant benefits.

But this simply isn’t the case.

What few in business know is that Google has devoted the same level of intellectual firepower it used to create self-driving cars to discovering, refining, and implementing leadership practices that optimize human performance in the workplace.

Upending traditional leadership theory, which directs organizations to squeeze as much out of people while paying them as little as possible, Google holds an authentic reverence for its employees and seeks to not just appeal to their uber-developed minds in motivating performance, but also to their very human hearts.

I’ve just returned from a visit to Google’s global headquarters and from spending time with some of the people guiding the company's groundbreaking model of leadership--one that has helped its stock appreciate by over 650% since the firm’s IPO seven and a half years ago. (The Dow Jones average is up by just 44% in the same timeframe).

Here are highlights of what I learned.

1. Being a great place to work is in Google’s DNA.
In the company’s early days, long before it had thousands of workers, Larry Page and Sergey Brin set their sights on making Google a truly great place to work. Determined to attract and retain great talent, they went in search of organizations that had proven histories of caring for people, driving extraordinary innovation, and building truly remarkable brands. Ultimately, they identified the SAS Institute (currently ranked as the best multinational company to work for by the Great Place to Work Institute) as being one company worth emulating.

The Google founders met personally with SAS executives and sent a team of people to its headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Collectively, they validated their understanding that people truly thrive in their jobs--and remain loyal to them--when they feel fully supported and authentically valued. This led to the launch of plentiful perks and a culture intentionally anchored by trust, transparency, and inclusion. Few, if any, businesses ever have been built with employee happiness as its cornerstone.

But in setting its sights on making employees contented, Google wasn’t seeking a competitive advantage as much as it was trying to ensure its own sustainable success. According to Karen May, VP of people development, “it’s less about the aspiration to be number one in the world, and more that we want our employees and future employees to love it here, because that’s what’s going to make us successful.” In a striking irony considering the analytics the firm uses to make most of its business decisions, Google takes it on face value that employee satisfaction is a profound driver of performance. Prasad Setty, VP of people analytics and compensation, told me: “No one has ever asked us why we should invest in our people. Our leaders just assume it’s the right thing to do.”

Setty now manages a team of people whose primary purpose is to quantify the effects of all Google’s perks and benefits. They rely on metrics to identify what employees most want and need. I kiddingly asked Setty if he makes a daily count of all bananas eaten on campus and he got distracted in giving me his answer. But, honestly, I’m pretty certain he does. Before he can support employee desires, he has to first know what they are.

2. Google ensures people have inspiring work.
Recently, the Conference Board discovered that the single greatest reason U.S. workers have grown so unhappy and disengaged in their jobs is because organizations design their work very poorly. Their specific conclusion is that the jobs we ask people to perform often lack sufficient variety and challenge. In other words, routine and repetitive work that affords little opportunity for growth and personal fulfillment dulls employee spirits.

But not at Google. For years, company leaders have given every employee--regardless of job title or pay level--the opportunity to devote up to 20% of their workweek to a project of their choice. Typically, Googlers choose to help out on some other company venture, but the pursuit is ultimately up to each employee.

A few years ago, engineer Chade-Meng Tan decided to reach as high as possible in this regard. His aim: achieve world peace in this lifetime. On the likely chance that this idea strikes you as quixotic or even a bit crazy, consider that no one at Google sought to dissuade him.

Fully committed to his cause, Tan recruited Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, in addition to a Stanford University professor and other business luminaries, to help him design a course on mindfulness. Today, it is one of the most popular classes taught in the company, and Tan has written the New York Times best seller Search Inside Yourself in order to share his ideas with others. By the way, Tan and his primary work team still found time to create Google’s mobile search capability.


3. Employees have uncommon freedom and control of their time.
Over a 40-year period, Sir Michael Marmot studied the health of Great Britain’s government workers. He discovered that employees who had the least control over their work lives consistently had the poorest well-being and the highest mortality rates. His conclusion is that giving people greater control over when and how work gets accomplished leads to more optimal health and performance.

“One of the tenets we strongly believe in,” says Setty, “is if you give people freedom, they will amaze you.” Setty admits that this is quite a progressive idea--allowing employees greater discretion on work hours and when it’s time to go to the gym, play volleyball, or get a massage. (Immediately following our 2 p.m. meeting, Chade-Meng Tan excused himself to take a shower.) But Google also is highly selective in its hiring, and purposely recruits ambitious people with proven track records of high achievement. “That means we’re harnessing energy rather than coaxing it out of people,” says Setty. But he also admits, “in the absence of that motivation, we’d be playing defense and worrying about people taking advantage of all this freedom.”

But, at Google, all that autonomy comes with true accountability and employees routinely exceed management’s expectations for producing exceptional work.

4. Google is a democracy and employees are given a significant voice.
Google has uncommonly aspirational ambitions (its mission today is to make people’s lives better through technology and to do great things) that employees find especially motivating and inspiring. But doing significant work alone is insufficient to sustaining employee drive and commitment. Google’s leadership team believes what’s equally important is giving people true influence in how the firm is run.

“If you value people, and you care about them as whole people,” says May, “one thing you do is give them voice, and you really listen.” And listen they do.

The firm solicits employee feedback on everything from how they prefer to be compensated, to the design of new bicycles used throughout the expansive headquarters campus. Every Friday without fail, company leaders, including Page and Brin, conduct employee forums and respond to the top 20 most-asked questions.

But the transparency goes even deeper. Employees are given extraordinary access to company information, along with the trust that they’ll always use it for good. When the firm formally surveys its workers each year, not only do 90% of them participate, but they ultimate see not just their own group’s results, they see everyone else's (though privacy is protected). And when the firm takes action on the feedback employees collectively provide, they share all of that too.

“All of this defines the employer-employee relationship very differently” says May. “It creates a different kind of experience being here, and also then creates opportunities for us in what we try to solve together for the world. I think all those add up.”

When I drove out of their parking lot late in the day, the thought ran through my mind that I’d just been exposed to the future of workplace leadership. At the same time, it also occurred to me that many of Google’s uncommon practices and philosophies might strike some as being entirely unworkable in their own organization.

Regardless of which way you’re currently leaning, I’ll leave you to ponder the words of Google CEO Larry Page: “Almost everyone who has had an idea that’s somewhat revolutionary or wildly successful was first told they were insane.”

--Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century. Reach him on Twitter @markccrowley, Facebook.com/leadfromtheheart, and his website, markccrowley.com.

[Image: Flickr user Jim Bumgardner]

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23 Comments

  • Jack

    There has been much hype about the open space floor plans and opportunities for spontaneous worker collaboration at Google offices. It appears as though the open space unisex toilets, which also allow for Spontaneous collaboration, have gone a little bit too far according to some employees.

  • Okeoma Anthony

    Me think in a workplace where the ambiance is a beehive of ideas as result of freedom to choose when and where to work, coupled with the right investment on employee, you can't imagine what result will suffice. Good work Google.  

  • Brint Keyes

    I can't help but think that one of the most significant ingredients of Google's workplace success is the fact that their workplace is peopled largely by the "cream of the crop" (at least for their sector).  I daresay that if I were to find myself in a workplace where everyone (including myself) was high-achieving, far-thinking, extraordinarily intelligent and creative, broad-minded, and invested in the success of the company, then we would have a pretty amazing workplace, as well.  But the truth of the matter is that this does not describe the vast majority of working people in the world.  There are a great many people who don't live to work, but simply work to live, and once they have their paycheck, they are more concerned with immediate personal and family needs.  That's not offered as a criticism or a judgment, but simply an observation of a non-Google (and, I would humbly suggest, far more common) culture.

  • Nim Chimpsky

    As a contractor at Google who's experienced the company's work culture firsthand and enjoyed many of the perks described in the above article, I would humbly suggest to the article's author - and really to anyone in the media approaching this particular topic, since coverage of the wow-check-this-out variety seems to be intensifying - that a little bit of nuance and context would greatly benefit the audience. I think that to be as accurate as possible in a written portrayal of what goes on at Google, and to give the audience a deeper understanding of how an enormously successful capitalist in-it-to-win-it enterprise like Google works, the writer should make an effort to touch on how the climate for people who work there is not without fundamental flaws and contradictions.
    To give a simple example from my own experience: The sector I work for relies to a critical degree on temporary labor. Not just a few contractors performing minor tasks for short periods of time, but a substantial staff of highly skilled laborers working on months-long and even year-plus-long assignments. Without their contributions, high-value projects would never get off the ground. Now, almost all of these temps would like to convert to full-time employees, and Google has intimated (but not promised) that this is possible (perhaps as a cynical motivator, perhaps because it is true - it isn't clear). But so far, to my knowledge, none has converted, and the current estimation is that probably none will, although apparently not for performance reasons or lack of work.I cite this example to illustrate that, for all of the praise heaped upon Google's unique work culture - and make no mistake, it is in many ways different than anything most people have ever imagined - the company is also very much like other 21st-century exploiters of human capital in that it relies on legions of workers who perform the same critical tasks as full-time employees (sometimes at a higher level of quality, for what that's worth), but are denied company health benefits, retirement benefits, disability benefits, maternity leave, input in organizational decision-making, and so on. I won't bore you with the details about the often precarious, economically insecure life of a contractor, and I don't mean to suggest that life as a contractor at Google is somehow terrible (trust me, it isn't, at all); I merely mean to point out that Google hasn't solved every riddle of the modern working world. Yes, it has done a lot of special things and opened a lot of eyes to how things could and should be for workers. But they still have a long way to go. Suggesting that they've transcended the contradictions of labor exploitation, which is often the sense one gets from reading these sorts of Why-working-at-Google-is-amazing stories, is basically a disservice to the audience. 

  • Mark C. Crowley

    Nim, I cannot disagree with your perspective that a whole lot of the coverage on Google is in the "amazing/must see" category.  I also accept responsibility for not acknowledging that this company (like all others in business) is by no means perfect.  People work incredibly hard and long at Google no doubt, so we can't mistake that this is a work environment where the organization has high expectations for productivity and contribution.  While I have no experience to comment with respect to the contract employees you mention, I honestly believe Google's approach to driving engagement, innovation and financial performance is a far more supportive (and inherently productive) model than found in most organizations. I personally believe it's highly informed.  People are very well compensated at Google (generally) and stock options have made many employees comfortable if not rich.  But after meeting with the people whose job it is to keep people happy, engaged and loyal, there was no questioning their integrity. Understanding that money alone motivates almost none of us today, they've put practices in place that give people a voice, ensure they have work-day flexibility and allow employees to work on meaningful projects.  At the end of the day, the leaders at Google -- like all leaders in business -- have to show that their practices drive results.  That remains a key focus of all work environments, of course.  Your insights are very helpful and thoughtful, Nim.  Thank you.

  • Michael Nicell

    I think you missed the point here, which is that Google has double standards when it comes to employee engagement and the like. These days, the contractor/employee divide is so blurred that I don't think the distinction Google are drawing is sufficiently clear for them to claim to really believe in people. Google really believes in SOME people and does not appear to be always clear about where others might stand. That seems unfair to and should be put to them

  • Nim Chimpsky

    Speaking from my experience at Google, I don't know that I would use the term "double standard" to describe its practices with regard to contractors. I think the more accurate description is it's a puzzle they don't really have a good answer for. Which puts them in league with every other employer in the U.S., as far as I'm aware. During my stint at Google, the ratio of contractor to full-time employee was as high as 1:1. I would describe the relationship between the two groups as very positive in general, although there were specific stretches when contractor morale sank considerably as that group's second-class status became more palpable, like for example during the holidays when full-timers were able to attend a lavish party, whereas the contractors were not; or during major organizational meetings, which full-timers attended but contractors didn't, even though the substance of those meetings had virtually equal impact on both groups. I fully recognize Google's interest in being stingy and security-conscious about who it welcomes into the fold as a full-time employee, and I am in no way denying that contractors at Google have access to opportunities, training and perks that simply do not exist in other workplaces, anywhere. It's just, you know, complicated. What I'd like to see is a journalist write a piece called, "What Google is Doing Wrong With Its Employees." Now that would be interesting.

  • LoquaciousD

    The hiring process picks people who are intelligent, accomplished and passionate and then nurtures them.  Most companies pick their ideal employee and proceed to drain the innovation and passion for their work out of them through allowing bullying and jealousy to run rampant, reducing performance to the lowest common denominator rather than the highest.  Google gets it right from the start.  Not everyone can work at google, but we can choose our employers and projects and the people we work with, whether they inspire us and help us grow or whether they attempt to hold you back and stop others from shining.  

    Google's policies and achievements are stunning, however every single person has it within their power to work at the best place for them and be truly engaged and creative in their work.

  • Jeff Armstrong

    Good article, the leadership style and culture outlined above really do differentiate Google from much of corporate America.  The only item that seems implausible is the "Google is a democracy" thing.  If a majority of the employee opinion survey results differed from the opinions of the executive staff, I wonder which side would win?  
    Employee engagement and self-actualization are key to success and Google seems to harness that well.  

  • Scott Marlowe

    I miss the insight here... Google is neither the first company nor the last to spoil its employees with fabulous benefits, freedom to decide when and where they want to work and what they want to work on. It would seem Google's workplace success is based on something else the author failed to identify...

  • Nancy

    “No one has ever asked us why we should invest in our people. Our leaders just assume it’s the right thing to do.” That's because it IS the right thing to do! Change often starts at the top and organizations who truly get this are the ones who will do well in this still-new century. Makes ME want to go work at Google! Thanks for a great article and thought-provoking insights.  

  • Philhood

    It sounds great. So why are all their products now designed to benefit Google rather than users?

  • Pranay Manocha

    The only criticism I have relates to Google's hiring policy where candidates are filtered based on academic achievement at university. This is a very myopic view that obviously results in a homogenized population of employees when we all know that radical innovation comes from mixing skills together (including level of skill). If Google were to bump into a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates or even a Mark Zuckerberg looking for a job, they would skip that person. The key thing here is that not all Mark Zuckerbergs of the world go on to build Facebook. Some of them end up being employees doing fairly inventive stuff in what would otherwise sound like a boring job on paper (such as insurance or a desk job at a patent office).

  • Brian

    I don't think your assessment is accurate. The people that Google filters are those coming to Google. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were extraordinarily intelligent in their own right and would likely have been sought out based on their merit, whether from school achievements or elsewhere.

  • Pranay Manocha

    Thanks Brian.

    In a truly equal opportunity world that statement would be correct. However, imagine a super intelligent single mom, who has the potential and the dreams to create world class products, but had to take up a job waiting tables even though she is an excellent software developer. Her grades at the university weren't great but she improved the processes at the restaurant she worked. Google wouldn't even call her for an interview even if she used to write the most elegant code at university purely because she did not "achieve" much, . This may appear to be an outlier case, but I know several people who fall in a category where Google and other similarly ambitious companies will exclude them from their hiring pool (and this in turn further prevents these people from achieving their own potential). 

    And I digress, but the success of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others like them, although definitely a function of their talent, were also largely attributable to their luck. The reason we do not have an Ethiopian techpreneur is not because Ethiopia doesn't have intelligent people, it is because Ethiopians do not have the same opportunities as Americans. So I bet there are hundreds of ace developers from Addis Ababa that didn't get good grades at university, didn't contribute to the open source community (because internet was too slow) but emigrated to the US and now legally work here. These people will not be interviewed by Google either. 

    Success in the world is still dependent on genetic luck and giving a higher significance to college scores or even 'achievements' perpetuates it even more (obviously, even within the US, there are those that caught the 'good gene' train and others that didn't). Also, contrary to what most people believe, many people who missed out on the genetic lottery do not require training to be productive. All they need is an employer who is able to create a role that enables them to 'produce'.

    My point? While I agree that Google has world-leading employee culture and policies, I think it has many more advances to make in the diversity of their employees.

    Apologies if my argument is a bit long winded, but I have seen enough 'unlucky' people in the world to feel strongly about it.

  • Brian

    I understand where you're coming from. However, there are plenty of companies to work for other than Google. When I am looking for a job, I do not set my sights on one company and decide that that's the only company I will work for. If your hypothetical super intelligent single mom is looking for work, there are plenty of companies that will give her a chance. Or she can work on open source in order to make a name for herself.

    Google receives 75,000 job applications a week (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/.... Can you honestly expect a company with that many applications to not use filtering? Considering that they primary products produces top notch results as a result of filtering, I would say not. It's not worth their time to find that needle in a mountainous haystack.

  • Rjfaragh

     I agree with NOXXEST, my cousin didn't finish university but is a great programmer and was sought out by Google.  He turned them down twice and then made him an offer he couldn't refuse.  Prove yourself and they will seek you out.

  • Noxxest

    That used to be the case. They've changed the model now to account for past working experience.