Google: Freedom With Strings Attached?

Every year Google figures among the lists of the world’s best employers. However, the internet giant is not a liberated company. Nevertheless, multinationals such as Google are finding a middle ground between the top down model of organization and an entirely flat structure.

Every year Google figures among the lists of the world’s best employers. However, the internet giant is not a liberated company. Nevertheless, multinationals such as Google are finding a middle ground between the top down model of organization and an entirely flat structure.

Slides, pinball machines, foam-cube filled baths and repurposed ski-lifts… such is the range of objects found within Google’s offices that you would not expect to see in an office that it’s become something of their trademark. Anytime a new office opens, the American giant pushes the envelope on what it like to call ‘coolitude’.    

Their latest kooky idea, installing a 3D flight simulator in their 12,000 square meter base in Switzerland. The publicity these kinds of ‘toys’ generate helps cultivate Google’s image as relaxed place to work where staff are given the opportunity to free their creative minds. And it seems to be working, since, apart from being one of the most innovative companies, Google is regularly cited as the best place in the world to work. This stellar reputation sees Google receive three million applications for the on average 7,000 positions that become available each year.


Autonomous personal development


The happy few get to work in an exceptional environment where the salary is good and the side-benefits are many. Google gives staff free access to its in-house gymnasiums. The company regularly organizes competitions between employees in order to help them stay in shape while promoting team spirit and shared values. “We actively encourage people to meet up wherever and whenever that may be, in the gym, at the cafeteria etc,” states David Yana, Google’s HR director for France, Spain, Italy and the EMEA region. The results are clear, Google has the lowest rate of absenteeism in the United States and its workers are naturally competitive.

But the Californian tech company is not all about offering its staff oversized doodads, it is also known for promoting autonomous development. The career development culture at Google is based on meritocracy and intrapreneurship. This freedom can be seen in the way Google organizes the time of its staff. Engineers and developers are allowed to spend 20% of their working week on side projects. For the company, this approach fosters innovation, and the most promising fruits of these side projects are commercialized by the company. Two of the company’s biggest successes, Chrome and Maps, were the product of such pet projects. The initiative benefits productivity too, as workers strive to get all their regular work done quicker so as to have the maximum amount of time free for their personal endeavors.


Peer-led rewards and evaluation


Between its casual image and startup-like organization, Google is often taken to be a liberated company. However, while the company does all in its power to hold onto the culture of a startup, it cannot claim to have a flat structure. By doing away with hierarchy, a liberated company completely overhauls the traditional mode of organization. Above all, it rejects the notion of power and instead embraces organic leadership. For a multinational, it’s difficult to take the concept of the liberated company to its extreme. Nevertheless, Google does what it can and has proved that a third way is possible.

When it comes to management, for example, Google sets itself apart from the competition with its low manager-to-worker ratio. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergi Brin, have always advocated a relatively flat hierarchy with the worker at the center, not the manager. Google has an average of one manager per twenty workers, compared to the American average ratio of 1:7. At the same time Google likes to keep its project teams small – three is their magic number. “At Google managers have a different image from what we usually find elsewhere. Ours more closely resemble coaches. They are there to help support and develop staff-members by giving them the means to make the best of themselves,” explains David Yana.

Another important aspect of a liberated company is the idea of shared evaluation and rewards. Google has put in place a rewards system designed by the workers themselves. If a job is done well, the Google employee might get a voucher for a free one-hour massage on campus or even a bonus. To receive a reward, an employee’s co-workers must attest to the fact that they have done a good job. “We have a culture of feedback at Google, with two periods of evaluation per year during which each person an employee works with is asked to rate their performance,” adds Yana.

Google goes so far as to not have a career plan for employees, instead the human resources department lets each worker decide what’s best for them. “We consider Google employees to be sufficiently smart to know what will allow them to flourish,” argues the HR director.


Limited transparency


In a liberated company, organizational change is accompanied by absolute transparency. On this subject, Google has put in place a staff forum to test responses to questions related to company strategy and working conditions. Christened GoogleGeist, the initiative has a 90% participation rate. To green-light a proposal, it must achieve 80% approval or higher, any lower and management is required to put in place an action plan to address the causes of dissatisfaction. But the notion of transparency has its limits. Recently an employee called into question the idea of staff equality according to ethnicity and gender. To highlight the issue the employee shared an excel doc on the company’s internal social network asking her colleagues to list their name and salary. The initiative did not meet with the approval of management, proof that meritocracy would seem to have its limits.

And that’s not the only criticism. The quality of management at Google has also been called into question. By favoring the recruitment of people from technical backgrounds, staff believe google hire managers not based on their leadership or interpersonal qualities. Finally, the line between professional time and personal time at Google is finer than elsewhere. On top of a heavy workload and continuous pressure, former employees have spoken about the encroachment of working life into their private lives. If there is no official requirement, staff feel compelled to stay connected at the weekend or during holidays. Almost no one at Google takes the additional days off the company allows them. The most skeptical speak of an unspoken rule warning them against ever disconnecting, the more enthusiastic see this as proof staff are content to the point that they never want to switch off.


By Vincent Paes


(Translation: Simon McGeady)          

Read the full Special Report: Leadership & the Liberated Company

Do liberated companies get results? Are they better places to work than those with hierarchical management structures? Leaders League examines the phenomenon in the latest installment in our Leadership series.
Summary Bernard Laporte: “Authority means nothing without leadership” Clara Gaymard: “A liberated company puts people at the heart of its ambitions” Jean-Pierre Raffarin: “The leader is not the star” How to Reconcile Leadership and Hierarchy in a Modern Company?


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