How Google won the employee engagement race

work at Google

Why does everyone want to work at Google? What makes them this huge talent magnet that the world’s best and brightest apply in droves every year?

Coolness Quotient

The company has a legendary reputation for “cool”. And cool counts for a lot, especially with the latest generation of employees, the “millennials”. This is the ultra-connected, “generation me” who lives and breathes social media. Coolness seems to be the secret path to their hearts and fun is the seat of their motivation. So what makes a company trendy and hip enough to attract these guys?

Is it free, organic food? The futuristic bathrooms, outdoor mini pools, bowling alleys, and slides? Of course, all of this makes for a fun workplace but there’s more to it than just toys. Scratch the surface and you’ll understand that most of what makes Google’s culture work is free. But free does not mean easy. It takes consistent effort and honesty for a company to maintain the levels of employee happiness and motivation for as long as Google has.

Here’s a quick overview of the things they do right at Google and as talent managers what we can learn from them.

Purpose and Meaning

Employees, especially the ones you want – the passionate, engaged lot – want more today than just gross pay and perks. And contrary to popular opinion millennials are much more concerned with meaningful work than boomers or gen-Xers. They want to do well by doing good. The logic is clear for them – we spend more time working than we do on almost any other activity in our lives. All that time must come to mean something more than just paying the bills.

At Google, they seem to be honestly trying to make the world a better place and in many ways they already have. They’ve certainly made the world flatter by bridging information inequality. Such a translation of a company’s mission into something real and tangible has a huge effect on employees’ perception.

The company also shows a clear preference for “open source” – they share whatever technology they can, seemingly for free. On a subconscious level, this appeals to the altruistic, not so rational side of the human mind.

The lesson to learn: Figure out what real problems is your business solving and make this story a part of your talent strategy. Make your employees feel they are a part of something bigger than just a team or department.

Excellence

The world’s smartest people want to work together. That’s why getting a job at Google is reportedly 10x harder than getting a place at institutions like Harvard or Yale.

Over the last 2 decades, the company has paid huge, sometimes astronomical, premiums to put together and retain all-star teams. And the strategy has paid for itself, not just by making them one of the sharpest tech companies, but also by playing a major role in continued talent attraction.

The lesson to learn: Best attracts the best. Invest in attracting the right kind of talent and they will become ambassadors of your talent brand.

Communication and Transparency

It’s human nature that we want to have some control over our environment and the ability to shape it.

Since their birth in 1998, Google has used TGIF meetings hosted by the founders to engage with their employees and use the feedback to shape company culture. Even with internal communication, they have a “default to open” setting – they share everything they can. Employees have access even to projects they are not working on. This way if someone has a really productive suggestion they have the means to take it to the right team/person.

The lesson to learn: Employees are interested in feedback – both upstream and downstream. So listen to them – be it through weekly meetings, 360-degree assessments, engagement surveys or random pulse surveys – and actively encourage participation.

Independence, Autonomy and Creative Freedom

Google is famously known to let its employees devote as much as 20% of their paid time to “passion projects”. And it has led to some of their most innovative and best-known products like Gmail, Google Maps and AdSense.

Such autonomy and independence seem to be the holy grail of engagement. Today’s employees have grown up in a time where information has become available instantly and technology is increasingly automating the routine, mundane tasks. Therefore, the aspirational value attached to regular jobs is on the decline. What stands out today is creative problem-solving.

Industrial literature is replete with examples of how companies that allowed creative freedom to their employees stood to gain from it. Yet, it is still a problem area for a vast majority of businesses.

Relinquishing control is hard. After all, not every employee is likely to remain productively engaged during their “free time”. They might as well spend it looking at TikTok. The key perhaps is to identify the employees most deserving of such freedom and then focusing on providing them the support to shine.

The lesson to learn: Provide structure to your employees but don’t stifle them with micro-management. Excessive and intrusive supervision is the #1 enemy of motivation.

Perks that matter

We all know that Google pays pretty well. Not every company can compete with their deep pockets. But by their own admission, Googlers list many benefits that don’t cost a bomb. These are essentially a set of employee-friendly policies that showcase the company genuinely cares for their health and well-being.

One low-cost example being remote work or telecommuting. It is a perk that could make a world of difference to many people’s lives e.g. single moms or people caring for their parents or ailing family members. In fact, it could be a deciding factor for many millennials who just prefer the independence that comes with remote work.

Rodolphe Dutel, the founder of Remotive, puts it quite succinctly, “Employees don’t need ping pong tables or beer fridges at work. Employees need the flexibility to do their best work and enjoy life. Please offer trust, not toys.”

To sum it all up, while the free cafes and the funky offices get all the press, it is the simple fundamental element of the company culture that matters most of all. Building employee happiness and engagement is a long term project. Every survey you run, every weekly meeting or team lunch you turn up for has an incremental effect that may not be immediately obvious. But if you keep at it consistently, employees will notice.

About the Author:

Dr. Neha Manchanda is an Organizational Psychologist and a founding team member of GreenThumbs. Her expert services are extensively sought by organizations for selecting, recruiting and training talent. In the course of her career, she has designed and delivered numerous Leadership Development programs, Talent Management, Competency Development, Assessment and Coaching solutions to leading multinationals.

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