How Google Built a Winning Workplace Culture
Rocketrip is exploring issues in HR management with a series of blog posts that go beyond our normal travel focus. Last week we wrote about some of the problems associated with Silicon Valley’s lavish spending on perks. Today we’re taking a closer look at the company that more than any other has set the standard for modern workplace culture.
Since 2011, Apple has been a constant presence at the top of the list of the world’s most valuable companies. But for a brief period last week, there was less-familiar name in the number one slot: Alphabet Inc.
On February 1, Google’s newly-reorganized corporate parent reported earnings for the first time, and better-than-expected results from the fourth quarter sent its stock up more than 8%, to $813. At that price, Alphabet had a market cap of nearly $559 billion – $25 billion more than Apple.
Market fluctuations have since pushed Google from the top of the market-cap podium, but it’s safe to say that any company worth over half a trillion dollars can safely be called successful, no matter what name it officially goes by.
The Google-Alphabet change was motivated by more than semantics. It was part of Google’s wider attempt to bring greater transparency and organization to its sprawling empire by providing separate reporting for its core advertising business and the various “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars and 3D glasses that generate enormous amounts of speculative interest, but so far no profits.
As Google enters a new chapter in its history, it’s worth looking back at some of the internal practices that help make the company so extraordinary.
Avoiding Growing Pains
Google’s astonishing growth from a two-person startup to one of the world’s most valuable companies has presented many challenges, not least of which has been maintaining a cohesive culture and shared sense of purpose for over 50,000 employees spread across more than 40 offices.
In a year in which Yahoo has lost more than a third of its workforce and Microsoft has laid off thousands, Google continues to maintain a competitive advantage by attracting and retaining top talent. Of course there are many factors behind Google’s preeminence, and it would be overly-reductive to suggest that workplace culture alone explains why “Google” has managed to become a verb while “Bing” remains the last name of Chandler from Friends.
Still, Google’s HR practices are undeniably influential. Type the phrase “what’s it like to work at Google?” into your preferred search engine and you’ll get millions of results attesting to widespread curiosity about how the company functions.
What Happens In Mountain View Doesn’t Stay In Mountain View
Google is the archetype of a 21st century workplace, with generous employee perks, rigorous job interviews, casual office environments, and other policies that are less notable for their uniqueness than for their influence on other companies.
Indeed, many of the defining aspects of the Google employee experience can be observed at other tech giants such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as at smaller startups and more traditional businesses far outside of Silicon Valley. The Wall Street Journal even found that Google-style perks were sprouting up in unglamorous industries like insurance, auto loans, and waste management.
Google didn’t invent fun offices and free lunches, but as in the case of search engines, the company’s name has become synonymous with employee-centric corporate culture. As one sales manager explained in The Wall Street Journal article, imitating Google appeals to all sorts of businesses looking to establish themselves as industry leaders: “it makes me feel like I am at the most elite pest company there is.”
People, Not Perks
Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, says companies are missing the point if they shower their employees with perks without making a directed effort to foster transparency, purpose, and trust in colleagues. “The key to Google isn’t beanbags or the volleyball courts or the on-site gyms,” he says.
What really sets Google apart is its commitment to studying and improving its employees’ experience as carefully as it does its tech products. Not surprisingly for a company whose stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” Google maintains an amazingly extensive set of resources for employees.
“Moma,” Google’s intranet, has everything from crowd-sourced lunch recommendations to discussions of what different teams are working on (Googlers make a point of “eating their own dog food” by user-testing products in development). The company’s career page does an impressive job of letting potential employees “get to know” Google “from the inside out,” and provides tips for navigating the famously exacting interview process. That’s critical, because ultimately the best way a company can create a strong workplace culture is to hire the right people.
Work Rules @Google
Google’s workplace is widely admired but difficult to replicate. Very few companies can make a comparable investment in their human resources. But the salient aspects of Google’s culture aren’t predicated on massive spending. A presentation from last year entitled Work Rules @ Google laid out these 10 principles that can be adapted at any organization.
- Give your work meaning: everyone wants their work to have purpose.
- Trust your people.
- Hire only people who are better than you and “hire by committee.”
- Don’t confuse development with managing performance. Development is an ongoing conversation, not an annual measurement.
- Focus on the very, very good and the very, very bad. For the good, learn everything you can from them. For the bad, help them learn, refocus or exit them.
- Be frugal and generous. Not everything has to cost money (development, learning, inspirational perspective).
- Pay unfairly. 90% or more of the value on your teams comes from the top 10%, so pay them accordingly.
- Nudge by pushing collaborative, sharing behavior.
- Manage rising expectations. There is value in mistakes.
- Enjoy! and then start all over again. Building a great culture and environment requires constant learning and renewal.
Of these rules, perhaps the last is most important. Though Google’s growth has been astronomical, the company has been around now for over 15 years. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was one of the world’s most successful businesses.