Can Google’s Rules Transform Your Workplace?

Take power away from managers. Don’t trust your gut. Be open and transparent. These are just a few of the insights from Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, by Laszlo Bock, head of people operations at Google.

Bock recently visited campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series. While Bock was on campus, Cade Massey, a Wharton practice professor of operations, information and decisions, spoke with him about why he wrote the book and what Google has learned about work that the company believes can benefit us all.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Cade Massey: We want to hear about your thoughts on your new book, Work Rules. The first question to my mind is what does it say about Google that they allowed you to write this book? Most people would want to keep these secrets — how you operate — to themselves. Yet they allowed you to write this book.

Bock: It’s funny. We had this epiphany. I realized work sucks for a lot of people a lot of the time. At Google, it’s pretty good most days. We still have bad days. I have bad days. But it’s not miserable all the time. But for a lot of people, work is just a means to an end. We spend more time working than we do anything else. More time than we do sleeping, more time than we do with our loved ones. It didn’t feel right that … other firms wouldn’t be able to learn from and benefit from what we do.

We decided to open source some of this stuff and share it with the world in the hopes that work gets better everywhere, not just at Google.

Massey: Why does Google care about improving the state of the world in terms of work? Google is about organizing information. Why do you care about other people enjoying themselves at work?

Bock: Well, for two reasons. This is going to sound a little trite because every company’s got a mission statement. But people at Google really attach to it. They really feel it. They believe in this idea of making information free and sharing things and transparency. Reason one is we want to do that. We want to try that.

The second is because what we found is, rightly or wrongly, when Google makes news, people pay attention — even if we’re saying things that aren’t rocket science. We do this thing called Project Oxygen, which actually has rocket science in it. It was focused on finding out what makes managers work well. It got a lot of coverage as soon as The New York Times picked it up, and people paid attention. We got all these stories about people treating their employees better.

We thought, yes, we’ve got to organize the world’s information. That’s important. But we should be doing the right thing in everything we do, and this is a way to share some of that.

Massey: Can you tell us some of the main principles that you espouse in the book?…

“Managers have all these incentives to control and manage, but as employees, we want to be free. When we feel free, we do our best work.”

Bock: There are a few. One is that it’s important to have meaning in your work. There’s fantastic work by one of your colleagues, Adam Grant, around the importance of mission and connecting your work to something meaningful. In his research, he’s seen that you get a 30% to sometimes 400% improvement in productivity by just making work meaningful. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor at Yale University, also a friend, [does] similar work. She looked at people who were housekeepers, who were janitors in a hospital, and she found a third of folks, even in that kind of job, found meaning in their work and ways to make it matter. So, number one is that.

The second is taking power away from managers. Managers have all these incentives to control and manage, but as employees, we want to be free. Twitter  When we feel free, we do our best work. I write a lot about how to take power away from managers. At Google, for example, managers can’t hire. They can’t choose who to promote. It’s all done by committee.

The third big thing is applying some data, some science to make sure that the decisions we make when it comes to people are right. Because our intuition is wrong most of the time. You actually can’t trust your gut. Our computer scientists tell us you’ve got 11 million bits of information coming at us at any given time. If you think about not just what you see, what you hear, you feel your clothing on you. Right? You’re tasting the inside of your mouth. All the time. Your brain filters this out and can only process about 40 of those 11 million bits. So, we make bad decisions without realizing it.

The rest of the book is about how you [can] apply science to make better decisions. The idea is we’ll take what we learned, and the beautiful thing is it works for just about any company.

Massey: A lot of people would say this is something that can happen in Silicon Valley or especially at Google. They have all these resources. Is it really applicable to my company, whether it’s small guy or an industrial guy? Is it really applicable outside of your special setting?

Bock: So far it really seems to be. What’s amazing is we at Google have applied a lot of intellectual horsepower and analytics to prove this stuff works. Like a lot of good ideas, a lot of companies developed this stuff independently and have just been doing it. In the Northeast, you’ve got this grocery chain called Wegmans. They treat people well. They open their books to people. They give people incredible freedom.

There’s this great story that Jack DePeters, their COO told me. They had a baker who got a call [from someone] who said, “I need a wedding cake this afternoon. Can you please help me?” The guy bakes the cake, and … he shuts down the bakery for four or six hours to get this cake to a customer. When he comes back to the store, he’s not vilified for losing revenue. They say he’s a hero because he did the right thing.

Outside the United States, there’s this really cool company I stumbled across … called Brandix, a textile manufacturer. When you think about textile manufacturing in a developing country, you don’t think great working conditions. But they have a largely female workforce. They teach them entrepreneurship because they want them to go and do other things afterwards. They give them money to buy wells and build wells in their home villages so people have clean water and so they are viewed as heroes. They do all these things, and they are more profitable. They are viewed as a great company. They have higher employee retention and higher quality work product as a result.

“The benefit of [transparency] is not just that people feel trusted…. The other benefit is they’ll know what’s going on. They’ll make better decisions and they’ll create better products.”

All these things around what you do for people, lots of companies of different sizes have done it and what they generally find is you actually end up with better economics rather than worse.

Massey: Laszlo, if that’s the case and it’s more profitable and it works for grocers in Buffalo and textile manufacturers in India, why don’t more people do it? Why don’t more organizations do it?

Bock: That’s a great question. The reason more organizations don’t do this stuff is it’s not always intuitive. It actually cuts against all your incentives as a manager, as a leader. The reason you get promoted is because you’ve done good work, you’ve hit your goals, you’ve made good decisions. You’re in this job, and of course, you immediately want to make good decisions, hit your goals, move things forward. You forget that when you’re an employee you want your manager helping and giving you advice and then kind of getting out of your way.

As a manager, your whole mindset shifts. [Y]ou start saying, I gotta make sure everyone delivers. I gotta micromanage. I gotta watch things. It’s not intuitive as a manager to give people more freedom and back off. That’s one of the things we’ve discovered — that you have to limit the power of managers. Then people perform way, way better.

Massey: Institutionally you solved that as an organization by robbing your managers of power. This is one of the most surprising aspects of the book. We always need this story of transparency and illustrations of it. We’ve heard about empowerment, and we’ve seen some illustrations of it. But you seem to take the empowerment thing a step further by explicitly, philosophically robbing managers of power.

You mention the term committee. Is that really an improvement? In some sense, you’re not empowering that manager.

Bock: Yeah, so we make a lot of decisions by committee; hiring for example. If you interview at Google, you’ll meet your potential manager, your peers and potential subordinates. Everyone writes up feedback. Feedback goes to a hiring committee. None of the people you met will be on that committee. That committee makes a recommendation, which goes to a more senior one and eventually to Larry Page, our CEO. These committees are really important because they’ve just got one job. Their job is to keep the quality bar incredibly high.

The reason for the separate group to review the stuff is because they don’t have any incentives other than keeping quality high. If I’m a manager, I want to fill my job, and I want somebody who’s going to do what they are told. By the way, if I’ve got a customer who’s got a nephew, and the nephew needs a job, maybe I want to give that kid a job so that maybe I’ll get a sale or some kind of deal later with this customer. Those are all bad incentives. The committee is all about quality, and that’s their only incentive.

The other thing is once you remove the individual, you get less biased decisions. I interviewed this person, I liked them. I like to sail. They like to sail. Or I went to the same school, we must be similar…. What we find is we actually do better in terms of hiring in diversity because you remove all this bias that is introduced in the interview process.

Massey: Transparency is a major theme in the book. I’m curious: Does transparency follow other conditions or does it lead?

Bock: That’s an interesting question. Google had an advantage. Our founders — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — believed from the beginning it was important to be transparent, so it’s in our DNA. They started having employee all-hands [meetings], called TGIFs, once the company had 50 people, [according] to Sergey. We’ve just always done it. We’ve always shared information. That’s part of who we are and what we do. If you don’t have that kind of culture, I wouldn’t start where we start. Right? Every quarter, Eric Schmidt, our chairman, comes and does an all-hands for all our employees after the board meeting. He tells you exactly what happened at the board meeting. He shares all the materials. That’s a big step as a first step.

What I would do is build trust and start sharing things you normally wouldn’t share. For example, it might be as simple as the minutes from the meeting of the management team. It might be as simple as having people come and be notetakers who are junior people who can kind of soak up how decisions are made. It might be a product roadmap you don’t normally share with folks. Or it could be some financials you don’t normally share. But give people a little and allow that trust to build, and it will feel less scary. You’ll get to a point where people share a lot more. The benefit of that is not just that people feel trusted, which is a positive because then they’ll work harder for you. The other benefit is they’ll know what’s going on. They’ll make better decisions and they’ll create better products.

“We make a lot of decisions by committee; hiring for example…. [O]nce you remove the individual, you get less biased decisions.”

Massey: Something I’ve seen with [Google] over the years, and you talk about it in the book, is how much research you do internally. How do you inculcate this sense of always improving and building on what you’ve done? I’ve seen you take now two, three, four generations of research to continue to improve it. You don’t treat these things as a one-off project. You don’t have an outside consultant come and do this thing one time. It’s almost academic in the way it builds on previous work. How do you pull that off?

Bock: Well, part of it is we lean on academics. So, Prasad Setty, who leads our people analytics and compensation team, often says, if you’re a company, if you’re a non-profit, if you’re the government, you should be spending more time with academics than you do with consultants because academics also have this long-term perspective. They’re trying to make tenure, right? They want to show results over a long time. They’re interested in a topic area. You can get some great results. Those kinds of partnerships encourage you to have a longer-term perspective.

But the other piece is I often talk with the team at Google about there’s a difference between running a program and doing a stunt. A stunt is, we’re just one time gonna try this and see how it goes and then on to the next thing. But you never know for sure what the benefit was of that program because there’s always lots of other things. So, you need to repeat things. You need to run experiments. Then you need to watch how they unfold over time to make sure that what you did actually works.

Massey: Is there anything in particular we haven’t talked about that you want to share?

Bock: The part of the book that I had the most fun writing was the chapter on nudges. It’s called “Nudge … a Lot.” Two academics, [Richard H.] Thaler and [Cass R.] Sunstein, came up with the idea [of nudges]. It’s a nudge — it’s not a shove, it’s not a push, it’s not forcing someone. The idea is, how can you change the environment around somebody to help them make a better decision without removing their options for making choices? It’s a very cool area of research.

One of the coolest things in there is about weight loss. We did this experiment where we put all the candy in our New York office in opaque containers. So, we have micro-kitchens everywhere, free food, healthy snacks, unhealthy. We put the candy in opaque containers. By making it a little harder to see and a little harder to get to, people shifted to healthier snacks. Over a three-week period, people consumed seven million fewer calories — almost 1,000 pounds worth of calories fewer consumed.

Then you think about your home pantry. You open the pantry, and what have you got right in front of you? You’ve got the sugary cereals and the snack food and the candy bars, and all the healthy stuff is hard to get to. It’s immediately applicable to home. You can actually make yourself healthier.

There’s another piece about the importance of savings. In a way, it’s kind of the dullest but also the most important idea in the book. Another researcher looked at how much wealth accumulates over a lifetime. He looked at the lowest-decile, people who had $35,000 of Social Security reportable income over a 25-year period, which means all their other income were transfer payments: Social Security, Medicare, medical, food stamps, things like that. Within that cohort of people, some of them were able to save $150,000 over a 25-year period. The reason was, if you set a baseline savings rate and just keep saving at that rate, you accumulate a lot of money. Most of us don’t. Most of us just live paycheck to paycheck or it’s hard to save. But because of the power of compounding, if you save a hundred bucks a month in your 20s, you’re going to retire with $50 or $100 or $150,000 more than if you didn’t. It’s super boring because it’s just talking about retirement. It’s the future, and there’s this math and compounding. But honestly, it has the potential to have the biggest impact on somebody reading the book.

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