Inside Google’s Culture of Success and Employee Happiness

It’s pretty well documented that Google has a unique culture. It’s not the typical corporate culture. In fact, just by looking at pictures inside the Googleplex, you can see that it looks more like an adult playground, not a place for work.

But Google’s success can be attributed to this culture. Google has people who’s sole job is to keep employees happy and maintain productivity. It may sound too controlling to some, but it’s how this world-changing organization operates.

So can Google’s culture teach us anything?

Yes.

Google bases nearly everything off data, and while some of what’s below may work best only for Google, there are surely other areas that can work for all companies, regardless of size.

When learning about Google’s culture, one of the people you need to know of is Laszlo Bock. He is the head of People Operations, known by many companies as ‘Human Resources’. People operations are where science and human resources intersect. And it’s what keeps Google a top performing company.

In this post we’ll examine how Google recruits, develops, and retains the employees. Let’s get started.

Google Dublin

How Google Hires

Each year, Google gets over 2.5 million applicants. That’s equal to 6,849 per day and about 5 per minute – and Google reviews each one. Don Dodge, a current Google employee shows how thorough Google is with each applicant. What’s not important is the logistics of each hire, but why they hire this way and what we can learn from it. Because it’s the people that make Google what they are today.

When you get interviewed at Google, you’ll receive questions like:

“How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?”

“There are 8 balls. Seven of them weigh the same, but one is heavier. Using a balance scale, how do you find the heavier ball with just two weighings?”

“You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?”

Google says the answer isn’t as important as your thought process and how you think under pressure. The worst possible answer would be a non-answer. Quickly saying “I don’t know” won’t get you a job at Google.

These interview questions may seem unnecessary to some, but they are one method Google uses to filter and find the smartest, most thoughtful candidates. If you want to run an extraordinary company, you need to hire extraordinary people. And to do that, you need to be very good at hiring and firing.

Update: Bock has announced that Google is no longer throwing brain teasers at their interviewees, calling them “a complete waste of time” that only make the interviewer feel smarter. Google now relies on more on “structured behavioral interviews”. They ask the interviewee a question like “give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” The interviewer can then see how the applicant interacted with a real world situation as well as find out what the interviewee finds difficult. When looking for leaders, Google tries to hire those who have a track record of consistency.

Other times, Google recruits employees by “acqui-hiring”. A few of the well-known cases have been Milk (which got Kevin Rose), Meebo (which got Seth Sternberg and others), and Slide (which got Max Levchin who has since departed). Sometimes the best talent isn’t out there looking for a job; they’re already locked up with other projects.

This is how Google hires people. Part of how it attracts, retains, and keeps employees happy is by having a great culture with awesome perks. Let’s get into that now.

Perks:

First, let’s look at the perks of being a Google employee:

  • Free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The organic food is chef-prepared
  • Free health and dental
  • Free haircuts
  • Free dry cleaning
  • Subsidized massages
  • Gyms and swimming pools
  • Hybrid car subsidies
  • Nap pods
  • Video games, foosball, ping pong
  • On-site physicians
  • Death Benefits

Obviously, all these perks come at a cost for Google. But so does employee dissatisfaction and high turnover. There is a lot of competition for talent in Silicon Valley (and around the globe for that matter) and when you can retain your employees, it means less time and money spent recruiting.

This culture has paid off for Google, as they consistently rank among the best places to work. They’ve lost hundreds of employees to Facebook and many others who have started VC firms or their own startups. It’s one of the consequences of hiring smart, talented, and ambitious people. No matter how good the culture is, many of them receive enticing offers from other places or wish to start their own ventures.

A Culture Built on Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Human resources, or People Operations, is a science at Google. They’re always testing to find ways to optimize their people, both in terms of happiness and performance. In fact, almost everything Google does is based off data. So it should come as no surprise that Google uses all sorts of data to gauge employees and improve their productivity.

Let’s look into what Prasad Setty and his People Analytics team at Google have discovered:

Lunch Lines: You know by now that Google offers free meals and snacks to all of its employees. So what’s the optimal lunch line? At what point is it too long where people waste time and too short where people don’t get to meet anyone new? What’s the prime happy medium? According to Google it’s about three to four minutes. Any longer and they may waste time, any shorter and they don’t get to meet new people.

Lunch Tables: If you want employees to meet each other, make the tables long. This will expose them to more people who they can get to know.

Paid Time Off for New Mothers: Google found that women were leaving the company at twice the rate of everyone else. In particular, this occurred with new mothers. Google’s maternity leave plan was 12 weeks paid time off. Laszlo Bock changed the plan so new mothers could get 5 months paid time off with full pay and benefits. They were allowed to split this time up however they want (i.e. taking a few days off before expecting). The result after the change in policy? A 50% reduction in attrition for new mothers.

A warm greeting for new employees: A warm greeting for a new employee turns out to have a big impact. According to Bock, a manager greeting a new employee with Hi nice to meet you, you’re on my team, we’re gonna be working together’ and doing “a few other things” leads to a 15% increase in productivity over the following nine months. Who knew words could have such a lasting impact?

Diner Booths vs. Conference Rooms: Laszlo and his team have found that diner booths work better than conference rooms for facilitating creativity. David Radcliffe, the man in charge of creating the perfect work environment, says that:

“Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

Managers Do Make a Difference: If you haven’t already read the article from New York Times on Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss, you should. It busts the myth that managers don’t make a difference. Here’s what they found:

Source: New York Times

Deep Technical Knowledge Doesn’t Make the Best Managers:

Just because an engineer is ten times more productive doesn’t mean they’ll be the best manager, according to Google. While having deep technical knowledge is important, it ranks as the least important of the 8.

Google Culture Under Larry Page

larry page ceo google

On April 4, 2011 Larry Page officially became the CEO of Google, replacing Eric Schmidt. Google had a few issues facing them at the time of the CEO transition, including:

  • Too many products. They had around 50 they were offering, many of which weren’t well maintained.
  • No focus on design – in many cases products hadn’t changed in years
  • Too much bureaucracy. This led many employees to leave for Facebook, where they could ship code early and often.

What’s changes have there been since Page became the leader?

They’ve also experimented in some interesting areas, such as self-driving cars, the Google “x phone”, Project Glass (which is now Google Glass), and likely a few others that are still kept secret. Check out this Fast Company article if you’re interested in learning more about Google X.

Page has said that it’s in Google’s DNA to experiment, and that only making a few products like Apple is “unsatisfying”. He says:

“You know, we always have these debates: We have all this money, we have all these people, why aren’t we doing more stuff? You may say that Apple only does a very, very small number of things, and that’s working pretty well for them. But I find that unsatisfying. I feel like there are all these opportunities in the world to use technology to make people’s lives better. At Google we’re attacking maybe 0.1 percent of that space. And all the tech companies combined are only at like 1 percent. That means there’s 99 percent virgin territory. Investors always worry, “Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things.” But those are now the things they’re most excited about—YouTube, Chrome, Android. If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.”

If businesses want to attract top tiered talent that isn’t consumed by making money, they’ll need to focus on making a great working culture. This includes the work atmosphere, to the work done, to employee freedom.

And Google doesn’t view their culture as a “set it and forget it” program. They’re actively changing and maintaining it, because it’s crucial to their success. With any business, it all starts with people. And if you want to run great business, you need great people. One way to get them there and keep them is by making their work fun. As Mark Twain said:

“Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.”

About the Author: Zach Bulygo is a blogger for KISSmetrics, you can find him on Twitter here. You can also follow him on Google+.

  1. Loved this article! How interesting to find out what goes on behind the scenes. I am now demanding a nap pod.

  2. We’re borrowing liberally from this playbook to hire the best talent in the world.

    • Awesome.

      Working culture is just one aspect. If you want to hire A players, you’ll need to be working on interesting projects. A players aren’t interested in becoming another cog in a meaningless company.

    • Great one Zach! Google has always focused on their employees being happy by fulfilling all their needs, and also by offering them perks. This happiness of employees leads to them being focused, connected, creative, invaluable, and has also most importantly lead them to continue serving Google for a long time. Hence Google is most respected, desired and creative work space that everyone would like to be part of.

  3. None of the perks matches being able to work for yourself, from home.

    • Working from home is nice, but for some people it helps to be around others. Some don’t like working the same place where they live. They like to keep it separate.

      And some of those perks do beat working from home-

      Free lunches
      Onsite physicians
      Haircuts
      Dry Cleaning

      I think Google focuses a lot more on the output of an employee than hours worked, so I’m not sure if they set a schedule for each employee.

      Nearly everything has it’s pros and it’s cons.

  4. Excellent post..there’s one great book based on google’s innovative experience..maybe have a post in regards to it’s amazing culture

    • We’ll be covering other company cultures soon.

      This is one of the more well known books on Google’s culture:

      http://www.amazon.com/In-The-Plex-Google-Thinks/dp/1416596585/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1360703086&sr=8-2&keywords=google+culture

      • hey Zach,

        Maybe you could feature Facebook, Zappos and Starbucks next :)

        I’d like to comment on the
        Warm greeting for new employees…

        Words do have an impact, but it also counts how and who says them… authentic enthusiasm wins the day!

        Now, Google seems to be putting a ton of effort, money, resources and emphasis on their employees (and managers) but less on the end user, the customer?

        Everybody knows that there’s no direct customer support like phone or email access…

        They can close (AdWord and AdSense) accounts in a blink, and the user will have almost nothing they can do, other than just submit a support ticket or something like that and receive canned reponses… I wonder if Google will do something about this issue…

        What do you guys think?

  5. Great piece of content. Life’s really great at Google. I’d love to be a part of their team.

    Ram

  6. The idea of nap pods has literally just torn our office apart. From looking at them, only wish is that they were a bit bigger, covered the whole body. Google defo get HR right, though only criticism have heard is that the free food policy results in mountains of wasted food.

    • Ah. So you’re saying that because people didn’t pay for their food that means that they are more likely to waste it? It’s a fair point.

      But on the other side, it also keeps the employees at HQ and they get to eat healthy foods, which is important for work performance and productivity.

  7. All I can say is, wow! Only a company like this would ever get me to leave the cushion of self employment. It is pretty amazing all that Google does for its employees.

    • It is amazing what Google does for it’s employees. It’s a big reason why they’re able to attract top talent and keep them there. As Bock says:

      “If you work eight or 10 hours a day, it’s more time than you spend sleeping, more time than you spend with your spouse. When you add it up it gets really depressing. You like your job, but for all time it should be— and it could be—something more. So why isn’t it?”

  8. This was an amazing article. Let’s face it, if you are going to work for a company let them all be like Google. It’s a fair trade-off between productivity and living a balanced life. We all need a challenge and responsibility, as well as opportunities to succeed. It sounds like Google has really embraced that balance and gives back to its employees by making sure that most of the things that the rest of us worry about are stitched into the cultural fabric of organisation.

  9. Google is listed among the top places to work and it’d be nice if every company has a work culture like google.

  10. This article is inspiring. People make companies great. The 8 good behaviors to be a better manager applies everywhere. I recognize each one and will put them up in my office today. Thank you, Google.

    • The people are everything. Whenever someone asks me why Google is the best I always respond with:

      “the people”

      It’s the people of Google that design and maintain the algorithms, system, design new products, etc. It all comes back to the people.

  11. Quite inspiring! Staff is definitely the most valuable asset of any company.

  12. There are definitely a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is an awesome point to bring up. I provide the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are actually questions like the 1 you bring up where essentially the most very important thing might be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if preferred practices have emerged about items like that, but I am positive that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

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