27 October 2016Last updated

Features | Reportage


Yes, it really is employee heaven over at Google – think gourmet lunches and five months’ maternity leave

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
8 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Phocal Media

Imagine working at Google, and it’s lunchtime. Forget about grabbing a sandwich or a pre-packaged meal. At hand are professional chefs who will prepare a gourmet meal just the way you like it.

No, this is not an urban legend.


‘Our cafés are like restaurants in our offices,’ says Yvonne Agyei, vice-president for international people operations at Google, on the sidelines of the 11th Human Capital Forum MENA held in May in Dubai.

‘Almost all of our offices serve breakfast and lunch free of cost to employees. Some offices also get dinner depending on the working culture of the region.’


The cafés are staffed by chefs who have the freedom to create the menus. ‘Since our offices are multicultural, our catering staff have to take that into account,’ says Yvonne. ‘For instance, during Ramadan, they ensure that there is food available during suhour and iftar for those observing the fast.’

One has to wait in a line at the lunch counter to pick up the food. But just in case you are wondering, the queues are not a sign of inefficiency. It is a corporate strategy.

Dan Cobley, former managing director of Google UK, found that by keeping the lines reasonably long, the waiting employees began chatting, which led to ideas and new projects.

Google’s perks and workplace practices may be deemed extravagant, and they are anything but. ‘We aim to inspire creativity,’ says Yvonne.


The company also goes to great lengths to retain its staff. About a decade ago, Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations, noticed a trend of women leaving the company, particularly those in Google’s US offices.

‘Most companies measure attrition levels, but we also look at different demographic groups to see if there any trends,’ says Yvonne.

Examining the data, they found that it was new mothers who were leaving. ‘It happened around the time they returned after their three-month maternity leave period,’ she says. ‘They’d work for a month or two and then leave, finding it difficult to cope with careers and motherhood.’


Laszlo felt that new mums required more time to adjust to the new routine. ‘So, he increased the maternity leave period from three to five months, to get families adjusted,’ Yvonne adds. ‘That was very successful and brought attrition rates down by almost 50 per cent. Now, the minimum maternity leave is 18 weeks, higher in some places due to local practices.’

This is one of the reasons Yvonne was invited to speak at the 11th Human Capital Forum MENA. 
As one of the region’s leading human resource platforms dedicated to bringing together talent managers as well as business and thought leaders to share their successful experiments, Google was looked upon to throw light on its staff-retaining policies.


Participants included HR heads from companies such as Tecom, Human Capital Institute, Mobily,, ADCB, Du, Jumeirah Group, Gulf Capital, Knowledge and Human Development Authority Dubai, Bayt, Roche Diagnostics and Al Ahli Bank of Kuwait. Naturally, Yvonne’s talk provided excellent insights into addressing various staff issues.

Google clearly does a lot to keep its staff and their kin happy, which, in turn, results in increased productivity and spectacular growth for the company. With more than 57,000 workers in its employ, it was named the most attractive employer in the world in Universum’s latest annual survey conducted among more than 267,000 millennials worldwide.


Consider this: When a Google staffer passes on, the spouse/partner is entitled to receive half salary for a period of 10 years. ‘We found that when a staff member died, his or her team would create a fund to support the deceased’s family,’ says Yvonne. ‘So, rather than leaving it to individual teams, we decided to do this as a company and make it available to everybody.’ It is now part of Google’s life insurance plan.

The more intangible perks include what is called the 20 per cent time policy. The principle behind it was that engineers working on different projects/products can use one day of their time to create something new, something different. ‘You may have an idea that may not be related to your core job; we want to give the person a chance to work on it,’ says Yvonne. ‘It’s a way of encouraging innovation and there are no rules on what you can work on. It just has to be work-related. If you have an idea, you can go and put a small team together to work on it.’


What used to be for just the engineering team is now open to all Google employees. ‘Now, everybody can participate and do 20 per cent time,’ says Yvonne. ‘And it doesn’t need to be a day, it can be one or two hours a day that you spend working on a different project. It’s a great way for people to know another area.’

Google is obviously serious about keeping its employees content. A 2015 study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12 per cent spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved 10 per cent less productive. ‘We find that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity,’ the study says.

‘Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.’

For the tech giant, that means conducting various surveys among its employees. ‘We are very big on surveys!’ laughs Yvonne.


The biggest and possibly the most important among them is Googlegeist. ‘Most companies have an annual employee satisfaction survey,’ says Yvonne. ‘Ours is Googlegeist. We ask a variety of questions ranging from do you feel you understand the company mission and objectives, how well do you think the leadership team is doing, your own personal team, is your manager supportive of you, your work-life balance, are you happy here, do you see yourself working here in five years, and many more.’

Then, Google’s people analytics team – armed with PhDs and enviable social science pedigrees – analyse the results and extract key themes across the company, and how the different regions compare.

‘We find out which things aren’t working well, and how we can focus on them,’ says Yvonne. ‘For example, over the past couple of years, we got feedback that we weren’t putting enough emphasis on launching excellent products. We’ve had launches that didn’t work well and then we had to fix the glitches.


‘The staff wanted the products to be of a certain quality, so we had to take a step back and recognise that we had to change our thinking.’

The team then focused on product excellence, and the next year’s survey revealed that people were feeling better about it. ‘They felt we had listened to them and taken action,’ Yvonne points out.

Many surveys pertain to the well-being of the staff. ‘There’s a longitudinal study that’s ongoing with 6,000 participants who take a series of questions every six months and get results that are specific to them, but it allows us to learn more about our people and certain trends on a long-term basis,’ says Yvonne.


Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, host a weekly meeting with teams across the world every Thursday.

Staying connected with its people is the primary concern of the Google management. ‘We have multiple ways to share information and receive feedback from employees,’ says Yvonne. ‘One of my favourite ones is the weekly company meeting that our founders – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – still host from California on Thursdays, where different product teams share their progress.’

Most staff work in small teams, who are invited to talk about their projects, followed by a half-hour question-and-answer session. Anybody can ask any question they want, and it will be answered by the right person. Employees from across the world can watch the live video feed in their offices or on laptops.

‘It encourages participation and people keep abreast of what’s happening across the company,’ says Yvonne.

Google has also developed its own mechanism to fix problems around the office. Called Google Universal Ticketing System (GUTS), it logs any issue encountered by staff, be it faulty air conditioning or a question about employee benefits. ‘You send the question, and the system forwards it to the right team,’ says Yvonne. ‘It’s very effective and GUTS saves time.’

Keeping in mind the special treatment each staff member gets, the company’s hiring process is laborious and unique. ‘We define four attributes we look for in our staff,’ says Yvonne. ‘When they go through the interview process they are assessed in these four areas, for any position across all offices.

‘We look at general cognitive ability – assessing how somebody thinks and solve problems; the skills and knowledge they bring to their role; leadership even for junior roles, because we have a very flat organisational structure and encourage everybody to share ideas.’

She pauses dramatically, then says: ‘The last attribute is Googliness, which is how well they identify with the Google mission, how passionate they are about the job, whether they have a natural curiosity to learn and grow, and if they work as a team.’

With so much emphasis on happiness, is there pressure on the staff to be happy?

‘We worry sometimes about that,’ admits Yvonne. ‘We want to create an environment that allows people to be happy and engaged. People should be comfortable and feel they are taken care of, and listened to; feel a connection to the work the company is trying to do. That’s what the emphasis is on.’

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer