“Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock


Have you ever wondered about the company culture that keeps Google on the forefront of innovation?

“Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead” (2015) by Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google since 2006, discusses Google’s company culture and why and how Google works. It is a handbook for hiring people, managing people, and creating a workplace where people thrive. It is based on the conviction that “All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good – and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines.”

The book is divided into 14 chapters that cover hiring, retaining, managing, and appreciating employees. Each chapter ends with “Work Rules” which summarize the chapter, and the book ends with a list of all the Work Rules.

Everything starts with founders who value people over profits. According to Bock, the three defining aspects of a great culture are 1) mission (a vision that is simple, meaningful, and open-ended/aspiring); 2) transparency (a willingness to share information); and 3) voice (giving employees a real say in how the company is run). When hiring, managing, and retaining employees at Google, this translates into 1) treating employees like owners and trusting them to do the right thing; 2) using data to evaluate products and employee programs; and 3) being transparent about decisions.

Hiring top performers: Google invests a lot of time and effort in recruiting, spending money to hire top performers instead of training average performers. They built a recruiting machine that turns employees into recruiters by soliciting referrals. Hiring decisions are made by committee, based on multiple interviews and a combination of work sample tests, general cognitive ability tests, and structured interviews.

Retaining employee-owners: To retain employees, Google helps employees be owners by taking power away from managers. The company eliminates status symbols, offers the same benefits to everyone, and announces promotions openly. They encourage creativity and innovation by offering employees time for side-projects called “twenty percent time.” Performance reviews are done by teams, not by managers, who measure performance with specific, measurable, and verifiable results, subject to “calibration” (group review). There are separate meetings for performance reviews and pay discussions.

Managing employees: Great managers make a big difference. Google helps the small number of people who struggle the most (people either improve dramatically or leave and succeed elsewhere), turning to experts and top performers within the company. Training focuses on deliberate learning (repetition and feedback). Because a small group of top performers account for a big part of productivity, innovation, and sales, Google pays them more (an instance where paying unfairly is actually fair).

Appreciating each other: Google offers ways to let peers reward each other (gThanks) and also rewards thoughtful failure to encourage innovation and risk-taking. People programs, whether it’s microkitchens, dry-cleaning, guest speakers, daycare, or shuttles, must help employees be more efficient, build community, or encourage innovation. The People Operations team uses nudes (gentle reminders) to make people happier, make people more effective, and encourage people to change – such as putting healthy foods at eye-level and unhealthy snacks in opaque containers, sending emails with checklists to help new hires settle in more quickly, or writing surveys that ask whether employees have done what you hope they will do differently. Google also admits its mistakes – Bock shares a story about how he was honest about a mistake and dropped everything to fix it.

“Work Rules!” is honest, insightful, and backed by data and experience. For a small business, the sheer amount of work and group effort that goes into hiring and managing employees seems overwhelming and a little exhausting. I am in awe about how much Google invests in its people, and the sheer amount of data they collect to back up their decisions. It actually makes me feel more comfortable about the reliability of their products, thought slightly more uncomfortable about the data they collect about people. Bock offers glimpses of his personality and personal life, from a recipe for pancakes to self-depreciating humor, a generous use of footnotes and wry acknowledgement that a 400-page book is not a nudge. He is even honest about his early, less than stellar performance reviews.

Here are the top 5 things I learned from Google:

1) Company missions and employee goals should be simple, meaningful, and just out of reach.

2) Make decisions about employees based on data (not gut feelings) in teams (not individual managers), and keep performance reviews separate from pay discussions.

3) Feedback surveys can nudge people into making improvements just by asking whether they have done what you hope they do differently.

4) At performance review, ask what they hope you would do differently.

5) Create employee programs that increase efficiently, community, or innovation – or are just the right things to do.

Laszlo Bock is a Pomona College graduate, class of 1993 and one of my classmates. I read about his book in a “Pomona College Magazine” Spring 2016 Book Talk, “The Freedom to Work.”

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