Why Google’s a Great Place to Work and Your Company Isn’t

by Derek Loosvelt | March 26, 2013

Quick, without spending more than two seconds to think about it, answer this yes-or-no question: Do you love your job?

If you answered no, then you're in the majority (a recent study showed that more than half of U.S. workers hate their jobs). In addition, if you answered no, there's a good chance the following statements are true: 1) your employer couldn't care less about your happiness, 2) you feel no loyalty to your employer, and 3) your employer is likely not very innovative, nor is it very profitable—or, at least, it's likely not as profitable as a company called Google (and if you don't believe me, then Google it).

Indeed, the Mountain View, Calif.-headquartered Google, which famously offers its employees peculiar and spectacular perks such as horseshoe pits, a roller hockey rink, free massages, and on-site dance classes, is also well known for its very deep pockets. The company famously went public in 2004 at $100 per share and now trades at more than $800. It started out with just a couple of employees and now has more than 37,000. In addition, last year, after just a decade and a half in existence, Google booked more than $50 billion in revenues and nearly $11 billion in net income.

To boot, a majority of its employees don't just like working for the company, they love it: the past two years, Google has been named the Best Company to Work For by Fortune magazine, in a ranking based on surveys that gauge employees' "attitudes about management's credibility, job satisfaction, and camaraderie." And further underscoring the firm's attraction to job candidates, this summer Google gets the Hollywood treatment when The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as a pair of over-the-hill Google interns (the two seem to be reprising their Wedding Crashers roles), hits theaters nationwide.

Expounding on Google's success, Mark C. Crowley recently wrote in Fast Company about how Google's culture of focusing on its employees' well-being and happiness isn't an accident but, in fact, a calculated management decision, which is still evolving and which Google spends tens of millions of dollars on every year.

Crowley recently visited Google's world headquarters where he spoke with several managers at the firm. Here's Crowley on the model on which Google bases its superior treatment of employees (the model is an entity called the SAS Institute, "currently ranked as the best multinational company to work for by the Great Place to Work Institute").

In the company's early days … 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.

Here's another quick question to ask yourself: is employee happiness among the four cornerstones on which you believe your company was built?

I didn't think so.

In any case, Crowley, in his piece, often quotes a certain Google employee named Karen May, who holds the title of VP of people development (a/k/a VP of HR in companies not named Google). Here's May speaking about the thinking behind that cornerstone of employee happiness: "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 other words, according to Google, the more employees love their jobs, the more successful they'll be, and, in turn, the more succe$$ful the firm will be.

And so why, if it seems to be working so well for Google (and for SAS, which Fortune ranked No. 2 on its 2013 Best Companies to Work For list), aren't other companies following suit, giving their employees the opportunity to tear it up on the on-site dance floor after work, to take care of their split ends downstairs at the on-site hair salon, or strap on some roller skates and check each other into the boards?

In a word, fear. That is, management at most large companies operate more like dictatorships than democracies. And these managers fear taking a leap and giving their employees a more significant vote in their company's strategy. Or giving them more freedom. Which is to say managers fear that more freedom will lead to less productivity (Yahoo!, anyone?).

Here's another Google manager (the firm's VP of people analytics and compensation) quoted by Crowley: "One of the tenets we strongly believe in is if you give people freedom, they will amaze you."

To that end, Google allows its employees "the opportunity to devote up to 20% of their workweek to a project of their choice." In addition, "every Friday without fail, company leaders, including Page and Brin [Google's co-founders], conduct employee forums and respond to the top 20 most-asked questions."

Of course, enacting such drastic workplace changes to companies that have been around for decades, not to mention operate in significantly more stodgy industries than technology and the Internet, is no easy task. For example, I can't imagine anyone explaining the plans for a new company roller hockey rink, bowling alley, or organic farm out behind headquarters to the boards of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, or Goldman Sachs. (Although, I can see someone speaking about, and getting a lot of support for, midday massages).

Still, it's growing rather apparent that companies that don’t put its employees first (or at least second or third) on the priority list are the ones that will be losing young talent in the coming decade. And so they’ll have to start making decisions with employee happiness in mind, or else risk their own demise.

Which reminds me of a certain decision made by the chief executive of SAS, Jim Goodnight, at the height of the recession, when SAS's competitors were slashing headcount and SAS employees were freaking out about losing their jobs as well (this comes from another Crowley-scribed Fast Company piece, published earlier this year):

[I]n early January 2009, Goodnight held a global webcast and announced that none of its 13,000 worldwide employees would lose their job. He simply asked them all to be vigilant with spending and to help the firm endure the storm. “By making it very clear that no one was going to be laid off," said Goodnight, "suddenly we cut out huge amounts of chatter, concern, and worry—and people got back to work.” What likely will be astonishing to many is that SAS had record profits in 2009 even though Goodnight was perfectly willing to let his then-33-year track record of increased profit come to an end.

Read more:
Not A Happy Accident: How Google Deliberately Designs Workplace Satisfaction (Fast Company)
How SAS Became The World's Best Place To Work (Fast Company)
100 Best Companies to Work For (Fortune)
The Internship Trailer (YouTube)
Do You Fit Into Google’s Culture?

Filed Under: Finance | Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues


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