The metrics of happiness: Learning HRM from Google.

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Wherever Google has offices in this world, it has the best chances to emerge soon as the most sought after and highest rated employer. With its “don’t be evil” informal company motto, Google does not have the most elaborate value system, but certainly exhibits a clear attitude when it comes to its employees. It wants to make them “happy”. In addition, one might become “a better person” working for Google. The last remark may express some self-irony and insight by its founders recognizing that it was not only brilliance and strategy which has made them multi-billionaires, but also good fortune, and that this status is connected with temptations known to everybody together with the opportunity to overcome them.
But whatever may be meant by that remark, Google is a very successful employer by making its offices home for its people. The drawings of the new campus planned in California show middle sized interconnected office buildings in a park with cafes and leisure activity areas. The environmental and social aspects dominate. Green is the dominant color, and people appear everywhere, lying on the grass, having a coffee, camping on the roof, and, yes, also attending a yoga class. Compare that to the new or planned facilities of competitors. Some are artful and futuristic monuments, but none of them focuses on creating a social and communicational environment for those actually working there.
Buildings are more than shelter from storm and wind but have practical and symbolic functions. Not by chance do Google and other high-tech companies speak of “campuses” when it comes to their office buildings, and this one planned by Google tries to enable exactly the atmosphere of a communicative culture in a beautiful world of arts and science which only the academic world can offer, the world most employees of Google have lived in before.
Inside the buildings nothing will be left to chance. The workplaces will allow individualization, the meals will cater to many tastes, and opportunities to sleep for the tired as well as gear for those wanting to work out will be available. From the green roof of the building to the choices in tea and coffee, there is one department which keeps a keen eye on everything, “people operations” (POPS) as human resource management (HRM) at Google is named.
The name is program. In most companies employees only rarely contact HRM, many only twice when hired or fired. Depending on position and career others see their HRM a little more often due to formalities around their work, for expenses like travel, or special arrangements when working for the company abroad. But in general HRM has become much more administrative than it ever wanted. Of course, education, training and evaluation are part of HRM, but in many companies these areas are dealt with in a decentralized way. Yes, HRM helps when serious problems in teams or departments arise, but it is rarely proactively organized.
The POPS of Google, in contrast, seem to be everywhere, and care not only about the brand of coffee people drink, but what their Googlers talk about as far as it is of interest for the company. One method to listen is intensive surveying and observation together with detailed feedback. Most companies use employee surveys nowadays, but only a few earn the qualification “intensive” and even less excel on feedback. It is however the feedback together with the impression that surveys are indeed acted upon that makes them valuable. Most likely the employees of Google are the best researched worldwide.
POPS resembles a scientific research lab constantly monitoring and conducting experiments with their Googlers. How does the placement of sweets in the restaurants reflect in the bodyweight? More impressive are, however, the studies done about fluctuation and optimal pay scales. Even skeptics like Stacey Carroll ( left the presentation impressed in which POPS laid down the statistical analysis leading to a flat 10% pay rise for all. Monte Carlo studies on effects of different pay schemes including the impact on the stock price may well be unique worldwide.
A second important aspect of POPS is a broadening and deepening of perspective in HRM work. The work-life balance is changing for many towards a dominance of work. Globalization and modern technology has removed the temporal and local borders which separated them. In addition, mental work and fixed times do not go together well. Googles’ answer to that problem is to create a life-space which enables work and leisure. At a workplace the quality of the coffee is not so important, because people have it at a café afterwards. In a life-space the quality of the coffee should be like at home or a little better. The “life-lab” division of POPS is, of course, an experimental one monitoring e.g. which colors are best for the walls, from an empirical point of view.
Google demonstrates that the perspective of human resources at workplaces has lead to a lowering of standards. No natural light, standardized cubicles, bad coffee on shaky chairs in a bare canteen? That seems permissible if you expect people to leave at 5pm for a cosy home. But it is in general certainly not the right environment if you hope that people will stay longer until some work is really complete or that they come in some Saturday afternoon to find a quiet place away from the distracting family life at home.
This holistic approach of Google to embed workspace into life-space also solves a problem which is hard to tackle for every hi-tech company, to enforce productivity in a soft manner. The quality of work cannot be measured well in time units and work can be done everywhere. In consequence, employees must like to go to their workplaces. When the issue of external control becomes an issue of self-control people will work at the place they feel most attracted to. From the companies’ perspective that should, of course, be their genuine working place. It is there, where the teams meet and things get organized, but it is also a place where you can meet like-minded people and a stimulating context in general. To merge formal and informal structures of work is practical for everybody.
Google is a special company in many ways. Most companies earn less per employee, have older and not exceptionally educated crews, and do not enjoy an application boom allowing to hire the cream of the cream. Most companies cannot afford optimized new headquarters and also advanced cuisine does not fit into all cultures. But what should fit into all is this keen eye on details together with a grassroots orientation when it comes to data and feedback.
It is not necessarily very expensive to demonstrate to employees that one cares, listens and that good ideas will be realized. Employees are in general intelligent and understanding people. They can differentiate between what is possible or must remain just a distant dream, but they want to be informed and reasoned with. Transparency of the process and feedback of information are also the reason why the Googlers are willing to be experimented with. In the end, a table with data has a lot of power to convince those who may be in a minority position.
In addition, Google teaches that HRM should be embedded in every thread of the company’s fabric. To care means not to respond to problems and situations, but to accompany with a proactive eye. In many companies this axiom translates into that HRM staff has to go down from the administrative office to the shop-floor again and talk to the people. A yearly survey does not substitute communication. It is its basis.