Google re:Work: Shaping the Future of HR

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Google is known for its innovative HR practices and office culture, most notably expressed through the array of perks the company provides its employees. Think all-you-can-eat gourmet food, ergonomic advisors, in-house barber shops, and sleeping pods. While these flashy perks often make headlines, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock is quick to point out that it’s a mistake to equate effective HR practices with the presence of “bean-bag chairs and lava lamps.”

It’s a much less conspicuous, but no less innovative, line of thinking that helps make Google one of the best places to work — the tech behemoth has been Fortune’s best company to work for for the past three years.  There is serious science behind Google’s human resources management, its workplace perks, and company culture.

Earlier this fall, Google brought together 175 leading thinkers in HR — behavioral scientists, heads of Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, journalists, and Google managers to reenvision work and the workplace. The goal of the inaugural event, titled re:Work, was to “inspire changes in people practices across industries and spur science and research collaborations.”

If I have one piece of advice to give all the businesses that are in the audience…it is develop better relationships with academics than with consulting firms.

Google has a rich history of incorporating behavioral science research into its People Operations (Google’s iteration of Human Resources). Google employs a number of industrial & organizational psychologists, decision scientists, and organizational sociologists in their People & Innovation Lab (PiLab), which is devoted to conducting research and developing insights to improve how Google manages, supports, and develops its over fifty-thousand employees. Annually, the PiLab hosts a Research Summit, which brings together Google managers and leading behavioral scientists to better align Google’s people practices with the latest academic research.

Because of its industry-leading work bridging the gap between HR practice and science, many other organizations, both in and out of the technology sphere, come to Google for advice and to share insights. The one-day re:Work event was a way to bring these various organizations and HR practitioners together with academic researchers and journalists, in order to spark a conversation about how to make work — the activity we spend more time doing than anything else — better.

The event consisted of presentations and conversations covering topics including how Google uses science to drive its HR decisions, ways employers and employees can create meaning at work, how to make work better, and how to change the nature of work itself.

In one talk titled “Motivating Positive Behavior Change at Work,” Wharton Professor Katherine Milkman discussed ways people and organizations can achieve positive outcomes — going to the gym, getting flu shots, following hospital hygiene guidelines — by understanding both the limits of self-control as well as the capacity for appropriately channeled motivation to overcome those limits.

One line of work she presented dealt with what she and her collaborators call the “fresh start effect” — their finding that people are more motivated to pursue their long-term goals at “fresh starts,” such as the beginning of a week, month, year, the start of a new semester, and after a birthday or holiday. Her research indicates that people are more likely to go to the gym, commit to personal goals, and search for diet-related information when it coincides with a fresh start.

In a way, Milkman’s discussion of fresh starts was a homecoming. Her work on the topic got its start during a session on nudging at Google’s PiLab Research Summit two years ago. “The HR manager posed a great question during our session, which I had never thought about before: when should we nudge people?” Milkman recalled in a phone interview. “We think a lot about the details of what tools we should use to tackle a problem, we never think about whether there are better times to roll them out.” This experience ended up shaping the course of Milkman’s work on fresh starts and positive behavior change over the next two years.

At re:Work, Milkman also addressed ways research methods can inform and transform industry. Rarely do companies rigorously collect and analyze data, the keystone of behavioral science research. In her talk, Milkman emphasized the ways proper experimental design and hypothesis driven analysis of large data sets can allow companies to better allocate resources to specific problems or programs and even remedy issues that might otherwise go unnoticed and unsolved.

In one instance, Milkman and her colleagues analyzed a large data set relating to hospital sanitization and found that as shifts wore on, and for more intense shifts, hospital workers became less compliant with hand-washing protocols. The implications of these findings on patient safety and health care costs is serious. According to research cited in her talk, 30,000 annual deaths, 50,000 additional infections, and an extra $10 billion in hospital costs occur as a result of failed sanitization compliance. Yet, without the data collection and subsequent analysis, the insight needed to address this problem may have never come to light.

Milkman’s story is significant, because it illustrates the positive feedback loop Google hopes to promote between science and industry through re:Work. As Prasad Setty, Google Vice President of People Analytics & Compensation, pointed out in his talk “Science Meets HR,” “Whenever we are faced with a new people issue at Google now, we don’t ask ourselves what does successful organization x do with this topic? Instead, we ask ourselves what does the literature say?”

He went on to say, “If I have one piece of advice to give all the businesses that are in the audience out here, it is develop better relationships with academics than with consulting firms.”

In the spirit of creating better people practices and inspiring new lines of scientific research, Google has plans to make what it learns about HR open to the public. One of the first ways they are doing that is by making videos from re:Work available on YouTube. Embedded below are several talks from the event: Google’s Laszlo Bock on “Changing the Nature of Work,” Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski on “Job Crafting and Creating Meaning in Your Work,” Google’s Prasad Setty on science and HR, and Sociometric Solutions’ Ben Waber on how smart ID badges can provide behavioral and organizational insights.

Other notable talks include: Google’s Jennifer Kurkoski on “Why Research Matters for Business and Vice Versa,” Psychologist Shawn Achor on “Happiness as Competitive Advantage,” and the panel on “Making Work Better” hosted by Wharton Professor Adam Grant. (For a full playlist of talks from re:work 2014 visit the re:Work YouTube channel here).

“Changing the Nature of Work”

Laszlo Bock, Senior VP of People Operations, Google

“There’s 42. billion people working on the planet…how different would the world be if every single one of those people had meaning in their work, and felt like they were doing something that mattered, rather than just trying to make ends meet?”

“Job Crafting and Creating Meaning in Your Work”

Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor of Organization Behavior, Yale School of Management

“Job Crafting: what employees do to redesign their own jobs, in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving (Berg, Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2010).”

“Science Meets HR”

Prasad Setty, Vice President of People Analytics & Compensation, Google

“Whenever we are faced with a new people issue at Google, we don’t ask ourselves what does successful organization x do with this topic? Instead, we ask ourselves what does the literature say? And if I have one piece of advice to give all the businesses that are in the audience out here, it is develop better relationships with academics than with consulting firms.”

“Using People Analytics to Measure Employee Networks”

Ben Waber, President and CEO, Sociometric Solutions

“The way that we traditionally try to learn about how we interact at work, how we collaborate, is I’ll ask you how many people did you talk to? Who did you talk to? And we’re just not very good at that…What I want to do is try to collect data on what is actually happening and use that to change how we manage ourselves and how we manage our businesses.”