Reaching Nerdvana at Google

Authors: Jean-Philippe Veilleux, Policy Horizons Canada
Document Type: Conference Chatter
Published Date: Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 12:00am
ISBN number: PH4-136/2012E-PDF, 978-1-100-21670-6
Alternative Format: Reaching Nerdvana at Google

In a time of fiscal restraint and deficit reduction, the public service finds itself in need of finding new solutions to increase its productivity. As the public sector moves forward, it needs to off load its infamous reputation of offering arid grounds for innovation. By looking at an organization where new ideas flow and where morale is high, the public service may find the inspiration it needs to create a positive vision for renewal.

What makes an employee more productive? Motivation. How do you motivate employees? There are many ways, but what would you say if your work environment offered free massages, all-you-can-eat buffets at all times, X-box consoles and fussball tables to raise your team spirit? Would you be motivated to come to work? This is the bet Google made since its inception and according to them, it works remarkably well. As a result, retention levels are high and new innovative ideas are a common thing within the walls of this unconventional company. In its 14 years of existence, the main challenge was actually to maintain the culture of innovation while going from two employees to 31,000.

What about distractions? It is fine to have employees wanting to come to the office, but do they also want to work? Having the possibility to play Dungeons & Dragons at work does not mean that you don't have the responsibility to deliver. On the contrary, Google believes that if they ask their employees to complete a task in a specific amount of time, they are free to accomplish the job in any way they want, at any time they want. It is, if you will, the very opposite of micro-managing.

Motivation also gets triggered when everyone gets focused on achieving a common goal. Google has a very specific mission: they want to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Everything is focused on that mission. In order to accomplish that mission, they created cafés, which are open space areas where anyone can sit down and brainstorm to find the next big thing. Every wall at Google is covered with magnetic paint, effectively turning them into white boards to encourage people to be connected with their creativity at all times.

I fail, therefore I innovate

At Google, innovation rhymes with ubiquity. It is triggered from anyone, anywhere. No matter who you are, you have a responsibility to innovate and provide feedback on projects and products in order to make them better.

Do you sometimes have crazy ideas that you would probably want to test if you didn't have to face the harsh consequences of failure? Google understands the importance of taking risks. Failure walks hand in hand with risk-taking and learning. That is why they not only allow for mistakes, they celebrate when things don't go well. And it doesn't end there. The failed project or product is dismantled so whatever piece that can be salvaged can be implanted into another project. Failures therefore contribute to new successes (e.g. we find elements of the old social networking tool Google Buzz in the brand new Google+).

It is often not enough to say that we are open to risks: employees also need the time and space to do so. Google leaves space for creativity and innovation: 20 % of employees' time is reserved for personal projects. During that time, they can work on anything that is not related to their direct responsibilities. The 20% is not included in the performance of the employee and managers do not check in on these side projects. Most of the time, people rally together and try to come up with novative ideas. This initiative resulted in interesting outputs. It led to the creation of Gmail and Google Sky (a website that maps the cosmos). And while not every side project creates revenue, they all contribute to the maintenance of the innovative culture.

Who's my boss again?

Google is as flat as it can be when it comes to hierarchy, although project managers are still around to ensure the effectiveness of the decision-making process. The mentality is to give employees a voice and encourage them to challenge managers and chiefs. The truth is, no one really cares about level and managers are considered project leads instead of bosses. Google encourages employees to continue doing what they like and what they are good at, instead of aiming at being promoted to managers; it won't necessarily give them a better income. When you do climb the ladder to become a manager, you still continue to do what you like (e.g. engineer still doing programming) and are asked to lead by example by having innovative ideas yourself.

The evaluation of managers and every staff is transparent and very important at Google. It tells you how you can become better by informing you where you should put more effort.

Where do we go from here?

Google is not declaring perfection; they are still trying to make it better. They are experimenting on mentors, job-shadowing and a flexible internal mobility. They are also trying to assess the impact of paying by performance instead of hourly. They want to explore the correlation between employees' perception of their value and the reality. The organization is changing fast and they are exploring ways they can control the future shape of the organization by working with the level of hiring, promotion, attrition and backfill.

Working at Google does not only mean free food and cool stuff, it is about transparency. Being transparent with employees creates engagement and empowerment. It helps to retain the top talent.

As public servants, can we learn something from all the experimentation that is happening at Google? And moreover, if the workplace throughout the private sector is to evolve towards a similar design, can the public service afford not to keep up if it wishes to attract and retain motivated people? Some innovations that have transformed the workplace at Google and elsewhere may inspire the public service to renew itself; everything that Google is experimenting with may not be optimal for the public service, but some of their ideas may lead to interesting adaptations.