Workplace Spotlight: What Google Gets Right about Company Culture

Ross Brooks
Workplace Spotlight: What Google Gets Right about Company Culture

Google’s company culture is synonymous with employee engagement. The Mountain View giant is constantly innovating and experimenting with its culture, and to great effect. The company has topped Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list for six years running, 86% of employees say that they’re satisfied with their jobs and it has a 4.4/5 rating on Glassdoor.

While fun perks have popularised Google’s company culture to the extent that there’s a Hollywood film about it (2013’s The Internship), there’s more to Google’s approach to employee engagement than free food and bringing your pet into the office. According to Laszlo Bock, the company’s former Senior Vice President of People Relations, „If you took all of that stuff away… you would still have the same company, the same drive for creativity and innovation.“

Founding Story

From their Stanford university dorm rooms, students Sergey Brin and Larry Page built a search engine that judged the importance of each page on the World Wide Web, which they named ‚Backrub‘. Three years later, in 1998, Andy Bechtolsheim, the Sun co-founder, invested. Backrub was rechristened Google, inspired by „Googol“, the name for the number 10100.

Fast forward to today, and Google’s parent company Alphabet is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Google’s products – from YouTube to Google Search – are used by billions of people worldwide.

Company Mission

While Google’s unofficial motto „don’t be evil“ is both relatable and relatively easy to achieve, its official company mission, „to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“ is somewhat less so. However, it’s the challenge that appeals. Most employees say that it’s this mission, not the perks, that keeps them engaged and motivated. In Bock’s words, „It’s rare to find a place where everyone actually knows the mission. And then they actually believe it.“ Because the goal is „noble“ and „inspirational“, it resonates with employees.

Google employee working on their laptop in a quiet space

Bock explains that „what really makes (Google) tick is this tremendous focus on data, this tremendous willingness to experiment, this tremendous focus on users, and this unbelievable assemblage of talent: which when you put it together creates an environment where people are constantly challenging themselves to come up with new, interesting things“.

Core Values

Having a clear set of core values is a fundamental part of building a healthy company culture that stands out from everyone else. Google’s core values were first outlined when the company was only a few years old, and since then, very few of those values have changed. We’ve included a few of Google’s „ten things we know to be true“ below:

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow
  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well
  • Democracy on the web works
  • You can be serious without a suit
  • Great just isn’t good enough

These core values paint a picture of what a Google employee might look like: Focused on the user, a specialist at what they do, democratic, serious and ambitious. Clearly defined values help companies to hire people that will fit with the culture and reinforce important behaviours.

Google employee with two dogs in the office

Google’s Company Culture

Google’s culture is flexible (employees are encouraged to work when they like and how they like), fun (offices have nap pods, video games and ping pong) and founded on trust. Collaboration is key – so much so that employees are encouraged to coach each other in the ‚Googler to Googler‘ programme. This includes key business skills such as public speaking, management and orientation as well as extra-curricular activities like kickboxing.

Building a sense of community is one of the first steps to creating a more positive company culture. Numerous micro-kitchens dotted around the Google campus are one way the company helps to bring people together. Break-out spaces give people a spot to grab lunch. This not only builds community, but also drives efficiency (employees don’t leave the building or spend time deciding which café to go to) and creates more opportunity for innovation. According to Bock, conversations in the breakout zones are usually about work – products, users and new ideas.

Two Google employees hanging out in one of the company's micro-kitchens

Google also prizes creativity, actively encouraging employees to innovate. At the Google X lab, employees are encouraged to ’shoot for the moon‘ and are rewarded for their failures. Failing is seen as a learning tool, and essential for employees to go on to bigger and better things. When the fear of punishment or ridicule is removed, employees feel safer. Also, people respond better when they feel they’re supporting each other rather than attending an HR-enforced training session.

Laszlo Bock highlight Google’s approach in recent book, Work Rules:

All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good—and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful.

Trust is at the core of what makes Google’s company culture so successful. In fact, one of the biggest challenges of creating a positive culture is moving away from a top-down style of management that sees people as inherently untrustworthy. Instead, why not make people accountable and then give them the resources and freedom they need to get the job done?

So, what can we learn from the Google approach?

  • „The relentless search for better answers continues to be at the core of everything we do.“ Google’s constant innovation continues to drive its success. Rethink your mission statement – or create one – that really reflects your company’s goals – and constantly challenges both yourself and your employees.
  • Even if you can’t afford to offer full catering, Google’s Mountain View micro-kitchens can be imitated. Add a dining table where employees can chat over their packed lunches. It’s a simple but effective way to encourage people to communicate and build a community.
  • Google takes full advantage of its talented, smart employees by letting them teach each other. Introduce weekly skill shares to nurture a culture of knowledge-sharing and boost collaboration.
  • Google is able to constantly innovate because employees feel free to experiment and fail. Create a safe space for failure – encourage employees to learn from not only their own, but also each other’s mistakes.
  • Google’s weekly Q&A sessions act as a space to outline upcoming projects to staff, but also for them to ask questions of upper management. Be transparent – being honest with employees creates a culture of trust. If everyone feels like they’re in the loop, it will help to boost cohesion.

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