Growing from three to 4,000 staff in seven years, search engine Google is using its company culture to attract new recruits, says Debbie Lovewell
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I rounded off my time at Google sitting on a sunny balcony overlooking London’s West End, sipping a cold drink as our photographer snapped away. But while this image is very much in keeping with the fun, laid back culture that the firm is keen to project, it is only one string to its bow. Behind Google’s quirky touches, the company is very business oriented and focused on achieving its core goal of organising information on the web to make it more accessible to users.
Although much has been written about the company, it is very careful about the image it presents. Only staff that have been specifically media-trained, for example, are allowed to speak to the press. Having spent several hours in the firm’s London offices, however – including a brief tour while seeking out a suitably air-conditioned corner – the culture on which it prides itself is very much in evidence.
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Russ Cohn, head of B2B vertical markets, explains that this is as much of a benefit to staff as any of the more traditional benefits in its package. “The benefits and the culture are always going to be attractive to people. The flexible environment, the exciting challenges, the great brand, the fun and stimulating work environment that we provide. There are exciting opportunities across the products and development of these tools and I think that attracts a lot of people who [have] great backgrounds.”
Google has grown substantially from its relatively humble beginnings with just three employees in a rented garage, which counted an onsite washer-dryer and hot tub among its benefits. But, as it has expanded, the business has worked hard to retain that small company feel. “New people that come on are given the philosophy behind Google and given the feeling that they are part of a team so we constantly try to embed that in people and the culture comes with that. The hardest part of any business is retaining culture through growth and through the fun stuff that we do, our products and the events that we do on a global and a local basis, people feel part of that and continue the brand,” explains Cohn.
Google’s quirky touches can be seen from the moment you enter its offices from the fridge in reception containing free soft drinks for staff, to the lava lamps on desks and beanbags and large bouncy balls available as chair substitutes. Employees can also take advantage of an onsite massage chair whenever they feel the need to unwind.
Little quirks can even be found in the more corporate of locations, for example, all meeting rooms are named after famous rock stars including Robert Plant, John Lennon and David Bowie. “It’s not a traditional environment but we are very business focused and very focused on building the integrity of the brand. That continuity needs to be managed well,” says Cohn.
When it comes to attracting staff, Google relies as much on its culture and working environment as it does on its salary and benefits package: an approach that is not dissimilar to total reward. But there is no subscribing to the latest buzzword here. Cohn explains that this is something that Google has always done, long before the idea became the latest ‘must have’.
Recruitment is currently high on Google’s agenda. Cohn explains that attracting the right staff is crucial if Google’s culture is to be maintained. “The challenge is trying to recruit. We’re attracting a very good broad base of people with great backgrounds, good motivation and I think they already have a work-life balance [which] they bring to Google. Education is one aspect but outside interests and the balance [staff] bring to Google is important to retain the culture and keep the continuity of the culture going. Google is a very international brand, very multi-cultural and it attracts wide audiences. The people who work here help make that brand.”
And with Google operating on a global basis, it has faced the additional challenge of establishing its culture in each of the countries into which it has expanded. Cohn explains that while it tries to offer a standard benefits package, this is not always possible. “The benefits can’t be matched in every country because of international laws around them. We do naturally fit into that with each country but yet we give standard benefits such as the fun stuff [like] the food and massage chairs. As we’ve gone into business, we’ve tried to align all of our operations outside [Google’s American HQ] Mountain View. So we do standardise them, but culturally it’s very hard to fit into some of our operations.”
Offering similar benefits throughout Google’s empire is deemed important because the package has been designed to make life easier for staff. Financial counselling and a wide variety of healthcare benefits, for example, are intended to offer staff a sense of security. The thinking is that if their needs are taken care of, employees are more able to concentrate on their work. “We try and remove significant distractions, allowing employees to focus on their job. We try to include as much as possible to allow people to focus on their work and take away the stress of financial pressures – we offer consulting around that and advice on financial responsibilities. Plus we give things like a free lunch, free snacks at all hours of the day, free drinks, [and] a massage chair. We get people in to give us massages too and [there is] gym membership, which we subsidise. Really we just want people to work hard but to play hard too at the end of the day,” says Cohn.
Helping staff to achieve a good work-life balance is at the heart of Google’s culture. All employees are provided with the technology that they need to work wherever they wish such as laptops and Blackberrys, and within reason, they can opt for flexible working hours. “We acknowledge that we work hard but work’s not everything and we try to acknowledge that. So we provide what we can onsite, but yet we want to give [staff] the time to relax, to unwind and to have the peace of mind that their families are taken care of. I think that’s key to attracting a lot of people,” Cohn adds.
Google’s onsite facilities also go a long way towards building an informal and friendly environment. With free lunches being served four days a week and a kitchen stocked with drinks and snacks, which staff can help themselves to throughout the day, they are encouraged to socialise. Outside foosball tables and a well-stocked fridge of beers to be enjoyed on a Friday underline this thinking.
Staff can also take advantage of company-paid social events such as trips to the theatre several times a year. “We do things like taking the team out to a movie during the week and just letting them hang out. You spend most of your time at your job so it’s got to be a little bit of fun. We try and do something at least once a quarter and we try to have bigger get togethers at least twice a year,” says Cohn.
And once a year, staff are given the opportunity to take part in a ski trip, which is linked to the firm’s annual sales conference.
Cohn believes that it is often the little things that can make a real difference: “It’s interesting because companies and bosses don’t think of doing it as standard and it takes so little to do but can make such a difference between people being happy and unhappy at work. You spend probably half of your day at work so you might as well be appreciated and have some fun while you’re doing it. It needs to be tailored to your staff and to your company because you can’t do everything that everyone else does. But I think just making that little bit of extra effort to acknowledge what your staff want and get feedback is important.”
Google carries out regular job satisfaction surveys to ensure that it is on the right track. And it is not afraid to act on the results. “If we get a reaction and there is a widespread feeling about something, then we naturally have to look at it, address it and try to tailor our benefits to the people. There’s no point having half the workforce unhappy about something and pushing it through because it suits a few people and management,” says Cohn.
After all, a company is only as good as its employees. As Cohn concludes, even in a rapidly-developing technological environment: “People come first.”
During his six years in the UK, Russ Cohn has worked for the country’s three main search engines ending up at Google where he has been its head of B2B vertical markets for a couple of years. Initially, the excitement of being part of an emerging industry attracted him to the sector: “It was new and exciting [in terms] of getting online and being part of an entirely new communication platform. It was a change of career for me, which was great. It was all pretty embryonic back then so none of us really knew where we going with it. I continued to be attracted by companies that had good models and good benefits for their staff.”
Having worked for the three search engine businesses at differing stages of the industry’s development, Cohn believes this hampers any true comparison of the benefits packages. “I’ve worked for all three at different stages of their growth so it’s difficult to compare very like-for-like environments. They all try to take care of their staff in their own way, but that’s within the limitations of size, growth and money so it’s difficult to compare. But Google definitely comes up trumps in terms of the fun and work-life balance. And from the benefits and salary package point of view, it’s possibly the best of all of them in terms of the blend. It’s definitely deeper and a lot more caring,” he explains.
Group personal pension for all employees. Employer matches contributions of between 3% and 7%.
Holidays 25 days as standard. Staff can carry over any unused days to the following holiday year.
Healthcare Private medical insurance, income protection, dental and optical benefits, critical illness insurance and personal accident insurance for all employees.
Financial advice Available to all staff on a needs basis.
Catering Lunch is provided for employees four days a week. Free drinks and snacks are available throughout the day.
Bonus Sales bonus for sales staff. Company bonus for non-sales employees.
Employee case study
Peter Brown is a creative maximiser who has worked for Google for three years.
His role involves liaising with the site’s advertising clients to write the copy for adverts so that it matches with common search terms. He particularly values the company’s culture and working environment. “The atmosphere in the office is very friendly, very relaxed and people have a laugh while they work. Obviously, it’s a serious business but the emphasis is on having fun while you work. It’s just a very friendly, fun atmosphere to work in.” He also appreciates Google’s onsite facilities such as its free lunches and snacks. Its Friday afternoon get together, which incorporates subsidised beers, is also a favourite. “Free food is always good. Every Friday afternoon, we have presentations or have little parties for peoples’ birthdays and just take a moment to enjoy ourselves,” says Brown.
Google at a glance
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin first met as graduate students in computer science at California’s Stanford University.
A year later, they began work on building technology capable of analysing the back links to websites. Despite working at the height of the dotcom boom, the pair did not wish to operate a company of their own, however, they were forced to do so after finding it difficult to secure partners to license the technology.
Google officially opened on 7 September 1998 with offices in a rented garage housing its three staff. Its name is a play on the mathematical term ‘googol’, (the number ‘one’ followed by 100 zeros) which was intended to reflect the company’s mission to organise the possibly infinite amount of information available on the web.
By February 1999, Google was answering more than 500,000 queries a day.
Google now contains a searchable index of more than three billion web pages. Its product range has also expanded to include local, product and image searches, a wireless service and free email accounts. Globally it employs more than 4,000 staff.