At Google, the Science of Working Better

Date: 30-03-2015
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Start by hiring the right people, says Laszlo Bock, then give them freedom

Bock Googe Book“Honestly, work just sucks for too many people,” says Laszlo Bock, head of human resources at Google Inc. That, he says, is why he is so eager to give away the lessons he has learned in the course of taking Google from 3,000 to 53,000 employees since his arrival in 2006.

Mr. Bock’s evangelical zeal has many expressions. He has a new book out April 4 called “Work Rules!” (Note the exclamation point.) He frequently speaks at conferences on both coasts, including one hosted by Google itself, called re:Work. (Note the provocative typography.) And he advises a startup, called BetterWorks, which is putting some of his ideas into practice by turning them into software to which companies can subscribe.

When Mr. Bock speaks, people tend to listen. He is essentially the godfather of “people operations,” a term for the modern version of human resources invented at Google that has spread to countless other tech companies.

“Whether you’re talking about manual trades or computer science and teaching, there’s a sense that ‘I just gotta do my dumb job’—but it doesn’t have to be that bad,” says Mr. Bock, who speaks with the congenial urgency of a TED speaker or TV chef.

The way to make work better, insists Mr. Bock, is through transparency, goal setting, frequent performance reviews, and a less-hierarchical work structure that empowers employees to solve problems for themselves while encouraging them to critique their bosses just as often as they critique themselves and each other. Plus, as Mr. Bock emphasizes again and again in his book, it’s essential that you hire the right people—smart, conscientious, and humble. (Although some might argue with the notion of humility being Google’s strongest suit.)

Because Mr. Bock’s message is still relatively new, it remains to be seen whether his methods can apply to companies that can’t be as selective as Google, which hires fewer than one in 200 people who apply. And it is also hard to see Google’s methods working in industries where fierce competition between both companies and employees can mean low wages and long hours. But, insists Mr. Bock, companies including Wegman’s and Costco have independently come to conclusions like his own, and are able to compete against companies that take a different approach, such as Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. It isn’t just the wage differences between these companies, he insists, but also the act of giving employees freedom and authority to act on their own that makes them more likely to “act like owners” who take responsibility for every part of the business.

One thing Mr. Bock espouses is hiring by committee. The process requires that each interviewer ask a candidate job-appropriate questions derived from a list of standardized questions provided by Google. Subsequent interviewers must ask the same questions, so that the results of interviews can more easily be compared, ferreting out interviewer bias. It is simple but it makes a difference, says Mr. Bock, and it isn’t the norm at most organizations.

Mr. Bock’s passion for hiring the right people regardless of their background, and then making them as productive as possible by keeping them happy at work is grounded, he says, in data. The company has even invented a term for the kind of experiments in management it conducts—people analytics. But Mr. Bock’s passion also comes from a deeply personal place.

Mr. Bock’s family were refugees from the oppressive regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. “On the personal side, I’ve seen the worst and my family has seen the worst,” says Mr. Bock. The result of that conviction is a Google campus on which all the food is free and middle managers scarce. But Google is also a place where a data-driven effort to discover why, for example, new mothers were leaving the organization led to an increase of paid maternity leave and a resulting drop in attrition of new mothers by 50%.

Mr. Bock also is working on a 100-year-long study to determine, scientifically, what makes people thrive both at home and at work. Called gDNA, the research is modeled on a type of study in medicine known as “longitudinal,” which means it starts with a population of people and follows them for the rest of their lives. (Presumably, the duration of this study speaks to Mr. Bock’s optimism about future results from Google’s life-extension research.)

The research is carried out by Google’s People & Innovation Lab, which Mr. Bock describes as his “playground.” When I ask how he characterizes the work of the “PiLab,” Mr. Bock doesn’t hesitate to say that “they do human experimentation.”

Early results from the PiLab’s gDNA study have discovered, for example, that about a third of people have complete separation of work and home life. That is, they can have a miserable time at work, then go home and “turn that off,” says Mr. Bock.

Of course, it’s easy to hire and manage like Google when you have the resources of Google, a criticism Mr. Bock is accustomed to hearing. But he says openness and empowerment of employees are things any organization can accomplish.

“The goal is not to say how awesome Google is, the goal is to give people a road map,” says Mr. Bock.

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