Will Google solve all our problems? There seems to be no end to this company's ambitions. The latest brainwave to emerge is a website called Re: work, a "curated platform" designed to help make the world of work better.
The company's senior vice president of "people operations", Laszlo Bock, author of the book Work Rules! (which set out Google's approach) wants to share what the company has learnt but also learn from others.
Google is famously data-hungry and data-intensive. In 2009 the company launched "Project Oxygen" to try and discover what makes for good management. It carried out lengthy research, and came up with eight golden rules.
- Be a good coach. This means having regular conversations with employees which balance criticism with praise, and which help point them in the right direction.
- Avoid micromanaging and try to empower your team. Offer demanding ("stretch") assignments to help people develop and to keep work interesting.
- Know your people well. Care about their well-being.
- "Don't be a sissy". This means focus on results (this is the closest Google gets to Amazon-like toughness).
- Communicate well. Listen and share information. Encourage open dialogue.
- Help your employees with their career development.
- Have a clear vision and strategy for your team. Include colleagues in your plans.
- Be a specialist. Have technical skills and lead by example, showing you understand what is required and are capable of doing it yourself.
Google also described three no-nos:
- Do not make a poor transition to your new leadership position.
- Do not be passive or inconsistent.
- Do not fail to communicate or listen.
Since these rules were offered up by the all-conquering Google, there was a tendency at first to regard them almost as tablets of stone or insights of rare genius.
But as Professor Julian Birkinshaw from London Business School has pointed out, there was in fact nothing extraordinary or unexpected about them. They were more or less timeless expressions of common sense.
Indeed, several decades ago John Garnett of the Industrial Society had offered his own home-spun dictum on good management: "If you care about what they care about, they'll care about what you care about," he declared. Who is to say Garnett didn't out-Google Google all those years ago?
Google is still (relatively) new and shiny and we all use its services every day. The company must be getting something right. What is it?
In an interview with Quartz earlier this year Bock explained that there was some hard-headed business pragmatism behind Project Oxygen and the desire to codify what works for them: "We discovered something beautiful, which is that once you figure out what makes people better managers, you don't actually don't need to build a ton of training infrastructure."
The company has hired over 40,000 employees since 2006. It has abandoned some traditional measures, such as emphasising elite college education, and instead looks for "cultural fit" and adaptability.
Bock mentions four things he is looking for in potential hires:
- Cognitive ability – the ability to understand a situation and solve problems;
- Emergent leadership – being able to lead but also being ready to be non-hierarchical and take a step back;
- Googleyeness – which is the point about cultural fit; and intellectual humility.
- Attitude and the ability to learn – rather than claiming to be able to do a job which will change and may not even yet exist – is far more important.
Some will object to the cult-like devotion that the company seems to inspire in its loudest supporters. Is there something lurking in all the free organic food? Are all those subsidised concierge services – haircuts, dry cleaning, massage – turning people's heads?
Probably not. In fact, staff turnover is high - one of the highest rates of any Fortune 500 company (although Amazon's turnover rate is even higher). Not everybody is in love with Googleyness and, as the Google Glass experience confirms, not everything the company touches turns to gold.
Still, at its heart there is something extraordinary about this business which dominates our (online) lives, but which is not yet 20 years old. I will be dropping in on "Re: work" from time to time to see what they have come up with next.
Stefan Stern is a business, management and politics writer. He writes for The Guardian and The Financial Times and is a visiting professor at Cass Business School.