How Google Humanizes Technology In The Workplace And You Can, Too

Technology keeps us from interacting face-to-face more often, but Google is changing the way we adapt to this new era of communication.

The Internet turned 25-years-old a few weeks ago, a milepost that commemorates the day Tim Berners-Lee proposed the creation of a new kind of “information management system,” and forever changed how we live and work.

That the Internet has enabled profound personal and organizational productivity gains since its launch is patently irrefutable. But at the same time, the Internet, along with its ever-growing progeny of applications, has an often unacknowledged dark side: Many of us have become overwhelmed by it.

Believing it’s easier to communicate with people electronically, for example, we’ve stopped calling each other. According to MIT technology professor Sherry Turkle, we don’t even e-mail people anymore—“our communication of choice is texting.”

Perhaps because we’re uncertain of the expectation of our bosses, or simply we are seduced by the prospect of what may be awaiting us every time we go on line, many of us now check our cell phones 150 times a day. Trends like these not only suggest that we're allowing technology to dehumanize us, our incessant connection distracts us from remaining present with other people, our work, and from sustaining any meaningful flow in our lives.

Using the occasion of the Internet’s silver anniversary as an inflection point, I reached out to Google Human Resources Director, Dr. Todd Carlisle, to see if his firm has learned to more successfully utilize and integrate technology and even re-humanize it in their workplace. Here are five of his most useful insights:

1. Thoughtfully Mix It Up

According to Carlisle, the Google employees who rely on one kind of communication—for example, texting or e-mailing—for everything and never meet with people in person tend to receive low engagement scores from their direct reports. Consequently, his guidance to managers is that they should be very thoughtful in determining the best way to communicate in every situation.

Carlisle says he does a calculation every time he needs to speak with someone: If the conversation is going to be a two-minute back and forth, then he'll instant message them. If it’s going to be longer than that, he’ll instant message them to see if they have time to talk live. Then he must decide if it is better to speak on the phone or via a Google video-conferencing Hangout.

Carlisle insists that some messages are always best delivered in person, like sharing vision for the team, for example. Routinely being efficiency minded when communicating will inevitably backfire, he says. “So I think what we’re always talking about is, ‘What are you trying to get across—and what’s the best methodology?’”

One Google VP recently replaced his newsletter e-mail with a three-minute YouTube Video. According to Carlisle, “after surveying people afterwards, we saw employees had better recollection of it, and overall more positive feelings toward the organization.”

2. Let Technology Support Employees In Their Personal Lives

The day Carlisle and I met, he had an 8 p.m. meeting scheduled with a colleague in India; he told me directly that he had no intention of staying in the office until then. “I’ll go home, put my kids to bed, and then take the Hangout from my living room. And the person in India will be getting ready to go to work (8:30 a.m.), so he’s going to do the opposite. Before he takes his kids to school, he’ll go to a quiet place, and we’ll have our work meeting.”

Much has been written about Google’s penchant for workplace synchronicity—the notion that ideas get spread and enhanced via conversations employees have in the hallways and cafeterias. Nevertheless, the company makes no insistence that people are always in the office to take a meeting. “We care that people are happy and productive,” says Carlisle, “and we’re all trying to be flexible around the stuff that happens in life.”

3. Leverage Technology To Give Employees Greater Voice

Traditionally in business, an organization’s policies and procedures were crafted and communicated by people in a Human Resources department, a process that excluded much, if any, involvement with line employees. According to Carlisle, Google sees its workers as the true subject matter experts, and purposely makes great use of its shared document technology to eliminate all “top-downness from decision making.”

Recently, a group of individual contributors petitioned Carlisle to have their job titles revisited. Rather than take on the task himself, he challenged the team to brainstorm and produce the solution. Leveraging a suite of programs that enables people to collaboratively create documents and spreadsheets in real time, employees in Mountain View, India, and Dublin were able to post proposed titles, comment on what they liked and didn't like, and evolve the discussion until the task was completed.

“I’m certain the team will feel much more empowered [and engaged] by the outcome,” says Carlisle, “because the new job titles weren't just handed down from the management team. They did it bottom up.”

4. Go High-Tech And Low-Tech

Almost every meeting held today at Google makes use of the Hangout program to accommodate employees unable to attend, or who work in other locations. Wherever they are, meeting attendees are able to use the camera on their phone or computer and talk face-to-face with every person participating.

Despite having technology that so powerfully and conveniently unites people—and that their own company created—Google’s founders and top executives have intentionally retained one old school element of leadership communication. Once a week, they make themselves available, live and in person, to Google headquarter employees (interactively beamed live to all other locations) in town hall meetings.

“This is not a high tech thing,” says Carlisle. “This is a leader prioritizing transparency thing.”

5. Encourage People To Disconnect

If you’ve ever checked e-mail after waking up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom, or felt compelled to respond to a boss’s inquiry on a Saturday afternoon, it’s consoling to know that, at least at Google, people are giving thought to whether “always being on” is good for us or our organizations.

According to new research on work-life balance, most of us now approach our jobs in one of two ways—we’re either “Integrators” or “Segmentors.” And, one of these methods, it seems, has the clear leg up on sustaining long-term productivity and overall human effectiveness.

Segmentors come to work, do their job, and go after a demanding day. At that point they are done. They turn their work-brain off and turn on their personal-brain. And the work-brain goes back on at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

Integrators will come home at night, do some personal things, do a little work, check e-mail before going to bed, and then again first thing in the morning. Integrators have looser boundaries between work and life.

Internal research shows that some people say they prefer to segment and some say they prefer to integrate. But regardless of preference is on this, the data shows Google employees are happier with their overall well-being when they segment.

One senior Google executive, someone who manages thousands of people in the organization, appears to be setting a more disciplined example. He’s conveyed to his employees that he checks e-mail only three times a day (an hour in the morning, an hour after lunch, and an hour in the evening) making himself more available to be present in all of his human interactions.

Carlisle told me at the end of our conversation that Google is trying to “use technology in the most positive way.” I believe him.

[Image: Flickr user Medialab Prado]

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4 Comments

  • Aliasgar Babat

    Google is know for its technological innovation and have launched many new products such as chromebox for video conferencing, Chrome RDP etc. It is giving a tough competition to leading vendors like Cisco, RHUB, Polycom Avaya, Logmein etc.

  • From someone who is a techie with a formal education in management systems and a lot of leadership experience, I just wanna say that I think this is a great article. Two things that jump out: one, the distinction between "segmentors" and "integrators" is actually really important. I feel as though I have seen so many "arguments" about which way is "better" instead of just acknowledging that this dichotomy exists; and two, what version of Google Hangouts is he using? because I think if i was hanging out with someone in India the video quality would be unbearable.

  • Thank you for the great feedback, Mike. Of course, Google execs may get access to new versions of technology to test at times, but current versions of Hangout should work for you -- assuming you have a good internet connection! MCC