Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google
BY LASZLO BOCK
“Why are Google employees so happy?” Laszlo Bock, Google’s innovative Senior Vice President of People Operations, offers his best answers to this and more puzzling questions in his book Work Rules!
Bock shares valuable insights and experiences from 15 years as a leader of Google’s strategy to attract, develop and retain the world’s top talent.
He credits Google’s distinctive management philosophies and its unique approaches to people, culture, talent and leadership as the reason why Google is recognized as the most sought-after place to work on the planet.
TOP 20 INSIGHTS
All that’s needed to replicate Google’s people success in your own workplace is the belief that people are fundamentally good, and a commitment to create a culture of “high-freedom,” which values liberty, authority and ownership. “If you believe people are good, they should be free,” Bock says. This belief will profoundly impact how you treat employees, the freedom and empowerment you give them in the business and the resulting happiness they will feel about their work.
Everyone wants to feel like what they do matters, so help your employees see the meaning in their work. Show them how it contributes to a greater good or benefits others. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Google knows it will never achieve its aspirational mission because there will always be more information to organize and more ways to make it useful. That is what inspires Googlers to constantly innovate and push beyond anything they can imagine right now. If you think of yourself as a founder with a mission that matters, so will your employees.
Trust your employees to behave like a founder and create an ethos of ownership in the team. Ask what frustrates them in their work and let them fix it. Be transparent and give them a voice to help shape the team or organization. You will feel vulnerable when you give away some authority to employees, but that is exactly what must happen for genuine trust to grow. If you have to pull back authority in the future, Bock suggests you tell employees each change is a test for a few months. If deemed effective, the change will remain.
Give people slightly more trust, freedom and authority than you give them now. If you are not nervous, you have not given them enough. Bock says that if you let people be free, they will absolutely amaze you.
Be transparent and share information. Openness shows employees you think they are trustworthy and have good judgment. Give them deeper context about the business along with details about why things are the way they are. This will motivate employees to do their jobs better and contribute in ways a top-down manager could never envision.
The existence of a huge corporate training budget is not a bragging point about an investment in your people, but the evidence that you failed to hire the right people in the first place. Invest your HR dollars to recruit first and the return will be better than any training program you could develop.
Slow down and invest time upfront to hire the best people. “Hire by committee, set objective standards in advance, never compromise, and periodically check if your new hires are better than your old ones,” advises Bock. “The proof that you have hired well is that nine out of 10 new hires are better than you are. If they are not, stop hiring until you find better people.”
Learn as much as possible from your top performers. Data shows they find it easier to get work done, they feel valued, believed their work is meaningful and they leave the company at one-fifth the rate that lowest performers do. Find out what they do best and then build programs to measure and reinforce the best attributes for the entire company.
Build an environment of deliberate learning and let employees be your faculty. Bock believes most corporate training is a waste of time and money because it is often ill-targeted to the audience, delivered by the wrong people and does not measure what employees actually learned or how their behavior changed as a result. Instead, empower your people to teach one another new skills in their respective areas of expertise. Ideally, the person with maximum expertise in each topic area delivers the training.
If you help those who struggle most to improve substantially, then you have created a cycle of continuous improvement. Google has observed that when someone helps a struggling employee, that person’s performance improves to an average level.
Employees, managers and HR departments alike dread the performance management process. It is bureaucratic, administrative, critical and carries professional and economic consequences for people. That is why Google and other companies including Adobe, Expedia, Kelly Services and Microsoft have eliminated performance reviews altogether. If you want your people to grow, have separate discussions about their development and performance.
Make developmental discussions with your employees safe, productive and consistent. Always approach development discussions with a positive spirit and goal to help the employee be more successful. Otherwise, defenses go up and learning shuts down. If you make development discussions a normal part of everyday business, there will be no surprises at the year-end performance review discussion, which should focus on outcomes and rewards.
Your company has two tails that represent employees at both extremes of the performance distribution. The top tail represents the top 5% of employees in the company and the bottom tail represents the bottom 5%. Most employees are classified as average employees in the middle of the organization. The tails are where your greatest opportunity to improve lives.
Many companies get rid of their bottom 5% of employees, but not Google. Instead, it chooses an approach “compassionate pragmatism,” tells the employee they are part of that group and then takes action to help improve and grow. Google has found that such “interventions” improve teams because people will either improve their performance dramatically or go somewhere else where they can be successful.
In a veiled attempt to be “fair,” most companies design compensation systems that encourage the best performers and those with the highest potential to quit. The problem is that it’s possible for an employee’s contribution to grow faster than their compensation, and today’s internal pay systems don’t move quickly enough or offer enough flexibility to pay the best people what they are worth. As a result, people are underpaid relative to their contributions early in their careers and overpaid later in their careers. At Google, fairness in pay does not mean everyone at the same job level is paid the same or within 20% of one another. Google pays “unfairly” compared to most companies because it believes your best people are better than you think and worth more than you pay them.
You can implement many perks and benefits Google offers, but this doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on them. In fact, much of what Google offers is free or carries a negligible cost. Google is frugally generous with employees because it wants to improve their quality of life, save them time, make things more convenient and efficient and simply delight and refresh the people who create and share in Google’s success.
The best things in life really are free, so remember that the best “perk” you can offer employees is to be there when they need you most. They will trust you and never forget your empathy, kindness and support.
Use nudges to influence the choice, not mandate it. Nudges are intended to change poorly planned current conditions that result in less health, wealth and happiness for employees. With transparency at the heart of Google’s culture, nudges do not need to be secret. They just need to be timely, relevant and simple to put into action. Due to their data-driven nature, Googlers often nudge one another at moments of decision and use research, academic citations and results from internal studies to make the decision.
Reject entitlement. People quickly get used to what is offered, and it becomes a baseline expectation rather than something positive and delightful. One way to address this is to be unafraid to change benefits once the original reason for them disappears.
Manage expectations. To build a great culture and environment, ensure constant learning and renewal. It is not a one-time effort and you will have critics. Experiment with one idea from Work Rules! or a dozen, learn from the experiment, tweak the initiative, and try again.
Work Rules! is a detailed playbook for leaders who strive to emulate Google’s people success in their own teams and organizations. This manifesto of simple truths offers transformative guidance to leaders who want to improve teams from the inside out instead of top down. That will not happen by institutionalizing some complex quality or productivity improvement methodology such as Six Sigma or Total Quality Management. This is about human beings and how we treat one another. Everything that has made Google wildly successful in the past 22 years is rooted in the fundamental belief that people are good and can be trusted. This is what has enabled Google to design a workplace where Googlers feel free, fulfilled, happy and able to efficiently manage both their personal and work lives. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.
GETTING IT RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE
Larry Page and Sergey Brin knew exactly the kind of company they wanted to create when they started Google 22 years ago. The founders have always been humble and generous people who believe that the value and success Google and its employees create together should be shared fairly. Yes, it is true, you can earn or be awarded large sums of money at Google.
Page and Brin’s founding philosophies have stood the test of time as Google has grown to 50,000 strong in 70 countries. During Bock’s 15-year tenure, Google was named the number one employer more than a hundred times in the U.S. and 16 other countries, the top diversity employer, the best company for women in technology and honored with a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign.
Bock admits Google has made plenty of mistakes along the way, but that its failures and lessons learned have helped it grow even stronger as a fair, just and happy culture. Bock is convinced that any team can be built around the very same principles Google has used and offers actionable advice so leaders can do just that. He cites impactful data, industry examples and research discoveries about human nature as he nutshells the valuable lessons that continue to shape Google’s culture.
HIRE THE BEST TALENT UP FRONT
If you are committed to transforming your team, hiring better is the single best way to do it, according to Bock. Google’s greatest growth constraint through the years has consistently been the ability to find great people. Google front-loads its people investment and spends most of its time attracting, assessing and cultivating new hires. Google invests more than twice in recruiting, as a percentage of its people budget, than the average company spends. Bock knows from experience how difficult it is to take an average performer and through training make them a star. Yet the massive training budgets of most companies are evidence that Bock’s belief is not widely shared.
Google hires more slowly to find the best people up front who will be successful in the context of Google’s business and inspire success in those around them. The way Bock sees it, if you get the best up front, there is less work you need to do with them when they hire in. Plus, you can reallocate all those training dollars to support hiring.
Bock acknowledges that Google could certainly hire people in the traditional week or two instead of the six weeks it takes to hire into Google. He confirms the company can certainly move faster when needed, and occasionally must expedite the process for candidates with offers from other companies that will expire if the candidate does not respond quickly. Google is constantly working to balance its speed, error rate and experience for candidates and Googlers.
Google has done years of research and experimentation to hire more efficiently. For example, it has done one-day recruiting events on college campuses in the U.S. and India to see if its offer acceptance rates improved. The company found that the accelerated speed didn’t materially improve the candidate’s hiring experience or acceptance rates, so it remains focused on finding ways to hire people they might overlook rather than move faster.
Google’s hiring process consists of six parts designed to ensure that the bar for quality is not compromised and that hiring decisions are fair and free of bias. In the early days, the founders hired by committee and often interviewed candidates together while sitting around a ping-pong table, which doubled as their only conference room table. From the beginning, Page and Brin considered hiring to be everyone’s job because no individual interviewer will get it right every time, an instinct Google formalized in its 2007 “wisdom of crowds” study.
Google’s hiring bench still runs deep as teams, not individual managers, hire new employees. The company follows the science of hiring and combines behavioral and situational structured interviews with specific assessments of every candidate’s cognitive ability, conscientiousness and leadership.
The major benefit to hiring the best people up front is this: In most organizations, you join and then must prove yourself. At Google, there is such confidence in the hiring process that new people join and on their first day they are trusted and full members of their teams.
SET THE INMATES FREE TO RUN THE ASYLUM
It is easy to tell a team what to do and then make sure they deliver. But it is exponentially harder to build a high-freedom work environment because everything about today’s traditional management power dynamic pulls against freedom. This is a significant root cause of the unhappiness and disengagement in today’s workforce. Unfortunately, many organizations are low-freedom workplaces, hard-wired to mistrust and operate with a command-and-control management philosophy. Both high- and low-freedom companies can operate profitably, but the most talented people crave high freedom environments and will gravitate to the companies where they can do meaningful work and help shape the future of their company.
DEFAULT TO OPEN AND OPERATE TRANSPARENTLY
The way to balance individual freedom with overall direction is to be transparent. Employees need to understand the rationales behind each action that could be perceived as a slippery slope that collides with the company’s values. The more central your values are to your culture and how you operate, the more you need to explain to employees.
Bock has seen transparency improve both individual and company performance at Google. He says that helping a struggling employee typically improves that person’s performance to average levels. It may not sound like much but think of it this way: out of a group of a 100 people, Jim was one of the five worst performers. After intervention, Jim became the fiftieth-best performer. Not a model employee, but Jim was now better than 49 others, where previously he was only better than four. Imagine the possibilities if you could get all the company’s worst performers to improve as much as Jim did. Better yet, what if the bottom 49 were still better than the competition?
The transparency of Google’s culture also provides a natural avenue to improve the company’s performance. Google uses a powerful technique commonly used by technology firms called “dogfooding,” where Googlers are the first real users to try new products (such as Google Glass and self-driving cars) to provide open feedback on practical daily use so teams can refine the products further before going to market. The term “dogfooding” originates with the makers of Kal Kan pet foods, who literally used to eat their own dog food.
Transparency also helps with the softer side of things by curbing conflict, internal rivalry, politicking and “backstabbing.” If you write a nasty email about someone at Google, you should not be surprised to see that person added to the email thread. Bock recalls the first time he ever complained about someone in an email and his manager promptly copied that person, forcing them to resolve the issue quickly.
LEVEL THE MANAGER-EMPLOYEE PLAYING FIELD
Google is open about its deep skepticism of management. Not managers per se, but it is “profoundly suspicious of power, and the way managers have historically abused it. Google has found the sweet spot between every manager’s susceptibility to the conveniences and small thrills of power and employees’ inherent conditioning to create their own hierarchies, yield to authority or defer to a superior.
If you want a non-hierarchical environment, you need physical reminders of the company’s values. Google wants its people to behave like owners in a non-hierarchical workplace, rather than employees, so it eliminates signifiers and symbols of hierarchy. For instance, the most senior executives receive the same benefits as its newest hires.
Google deliberately levels the playing field between managers and employees in many ways. Unlike most companies, Google has no executive dining rooms, parking spots or pensions, and it makes compensation programs available to all employees, not just senior executives.
Google also takes away the proverbial sticks and carrots that managers typically dangle in front of employees. There are many decisions Google managers cannot make:
Whom to hire;
Whom to fire;
How someone’s performance is rated;
How much of a salary increase, bonus or stock grant to give someone;
Who is selected to win an award for great management;
Whom to promote when code is sufficient quality to be incorporated into Google’s software code base;
The final design of a product and when to launch it.
Alternatively, each of these decisions is made by either a group of peers, a committee or a dedicated, independent team. Google believes the best way to see the heart of great management is to strip away all the tools on which managers most rely.
In closing, Bock imparts that “Google has a constant paranoia about losing the culture, and has a constant, creeping sense of dissatisfaction with the current culture.” But he considers that a good thing and would be concerned if the company stopped worrying. The feeling of being on the brink of losing a great culture keeps everyone vigilant to protect it.