Google’s 100-year study: Worker happiness

Apr 07, 2014

Turning its snooping skills on itself, Google has embarked on what it hopes will be a 100-year-long study to explore what makes employees productive and happy.

The study, gDNA, was inspired by the Framingham Heart Study, in which researchers monitoring the health and lifestyles of a yearly sampling of more than 5,200 adults living in Framingham, MA since 1948 have discovered many of the now widely-known drivers of heart disease.

In an article penned for the Harvard Business Review, Laszlo Bock, SVP of people organizations at Google, said he wondered if a similar study could be done around work. He writes, "There is precious little scientific certainty around how to build great work environments, cultivate high performing teams, maximize productivity, or enhance happiness."

Launched two years ago, over 4,000 Google employees complete two in-depth surveys each year as part of gDNA. The surveys cover "traits that are static, like personality; characteristics that change, like attitude about culture, work projects, and co-workers; and how Googlers fit into the web of relationships around all of us." Google then studies "how all these factors interact, as well as with biographical characteristics like tenure, role and performance."

Employees are randomly selected and participation is optional and confidential.

Early findings show that about one-third of Google’s employees are "Segmentors" — able to separate work concerns from their social lives. The majority, "Integrators," have trouble making that separation and more than half of those want to get better at segmenting. Those findings led to an experiment, "Dublin Goes Dark," in which Google’s Irish employees were asked to leave their mobile devices at the front desk before going home. The trial yielded positive results.

It took 20 years before trends started emerging from the Framingham project, and Mr. Bock suspects the "the real value of gDNA will take years to realize." Longer-term insights are expected around problem-solving, sustaining peak performance, idea generation, and maximizing happiness and productivity at the same time.

gDNA’s data and findings will eventually be shared and involve academics and other fields. But Mr. Bock offered four steps for organizations to start their own journey around work/life issues:

  1. Assess what your most pressing people issues are. Retention? Innovation? Efficiency? Ask employees as well.
  2. Ask employees how they think they are doing on those most pressing issues, and how to improve them.
  3. Tell employees what you learned, whether about the company or themselves.
  4. Run experiments based on the findings. See what works and what doesn’t.

Where are the most important links between employee happiness and work productivity? What do you think about Google’s gDNA project? Is this type of research something that could benefit retail businesses?

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10 Comments on "Google’s 100-year study: Worker happiness"

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Ian Percy

And let’s ask the chickens what they could do to make the fox happy.

The first suggestion leading to “happiness” was about “pressing people issues” totally from the employer’s perspective. Then as an afterthought: “Ask employees as well.” How thoughtful. Ask employees how they could serve the company better.

Second suggestion was to ask employees what more they could do to make the employer happy.

Third suggestion is to tell employees what the company learned from what the employees told them in the first place. May I borrow your watch to tell you what time it is?

Finally “run experiments” on the employees. You know, using mazes, electro-shock and M&Ms. As long as the whole thing comes out in a Google book about employee happiness.

This is all about Google corporate “happiness” not at all about the people who make it work. Ask not what the people can do for the company, ask what the company can do for the people.

PS: You might want to check out Jim Edward’s article in Business Insider about what it’s like to work at Apple.

Vahe Katros

The work should be meaningful and the employee respected. The firm should be loyal to the employee. I’ve met retailers and merchants who truly love what they sell, who love beauty, or who love helping others. I think if Google can show that it’s good business to treat employees as their most precious asset, and any business can gain.

But…retailing is so tough! If Google is in the knowledge business, retailing is in the life business. It’s the place of grizzled veterans who have courage and persistence in their DNA. I think Google might want to learn from us when they finally become a low margin, mature business.

Joan Treistman

First of all, it’s Google, not Walmart. Let’s take a survey of college students and see how many would like to be working at Google upon graduation. What is the impact of working where you want to be?

Next, look at how Google recruits its subjects: Employees are randomly selected and participation is optional and confidential. So you’re a participant only if you agree to be a participant.

Remember the Hawthorne project we all studied in school. “Individual behaviors may be altered by the study itself, rather than the effects the study is researching was demonstrated in a research project (1927 – 1932) of the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois.”

There is merit in studying employee happiness and work productivity if the ends are to have happier and more productive employees. I don’t think Google’s initiative will meet that goal in the retail world. However, there may be an approach that does…if retailers want to find it.

gordon arnold

My compliments to the executives at Google that are confident in a company presence a century from now. It must be this same self confidence that has created a plan to discover a means to determine how to create a working environment that is a happy and fun place to be productive. With all of this confidence and capability I trust there will be correlation formulas for creating success plans for factory workers, miners, field hands and all the other “hands-on” kind of work out there with little pay and no means for advancement.

Corporations should understand that it is never what you say to or want from employees to be and remain content, it is a matter of what you do to and for them. This is not something that needs a century of fact gathering and planning to know.

Mel Kleiman

In the surveys we have done that are nowhere near the depth of Google’s, we continually get the same answers.

  • Working with and for a great boss and fellow employees.
  • Working for a company that has a clearly defined vision and mission that they feel good about.
  • Having an opportunity to grow and be challenged.
  • Having fun at work.(That does not relate to what most people call fun)
  • Being recognized for their contribution.
Ralph Jacobson

Work-life balance is key. Also, finding ways for employees to see direct impact of their efforts/projects really tends to drive employee loyalty.

James Tenser

Systems and policies that enable success. Clear links between goals, performance and outcomes. Tolerance of productive failure and celebration of team successes. A culture of diversity and mutual respect. These factors help create a productive, motivating work atmosphere.

Employers are not required to entertain or coax workers to be happy. Much can be accomplished by minimizing the obstacles.

It’s interesting that Google is motivated to study employee happiness, although I could do without the 100-year hyperbole. Like others here, I’d watch out for the Hawthorne effect, but sampling bias may be an even larger issue.

Retailers should indeed exert themselves to look systematically at factors that affect employee satisfaction. Considering the high turnover rate in stores, long-term studies may be unrealistic. But there is merit in paying active attention and opening a safe channel that allows associate feedback.

Karen S. Herman

I’d expect Google to use predictive analytics for modeling human resources and agree with Mr. Bock’s hypothesis that our “experience of work can be – should be – so much better.”

It’s important that Google share these findings with academics and other fields because as work life shares a deeper connection to technology, the ability to intentionally disconnect, or be a “Segmentor,” will be all the more important and most likely, more difficult.

Retail is an industry that thrives on employee happiness and work productivity. This research could certainly benefit with its findings in problem solving, sustaining peak performance, idea generation and maximizing happiness and productivity.

Shep Hyken

There is do doubt that happy and fulfilled employes are more productive and do a better job at taking care of customers. All the stats and facts back it up.

If Google, recognized as a great place to work, wants to share the results of this worker happiness project, I’m going to listen and learn. This will be powerful information that can take a good company to the next level.

AmolRatna Srivastav
AmolRatna Srivastav
3 years 5 months ago

Perhaps I mentioned this earlier – In an interesting study done by our team, we found a strong relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction (this is expected – what was not expected was the level of impact – for every 10% increase in employee satisfaction, resulted in 30% increase in customer satisfaction scores). So I certainly believe work productivity is extremely related to employee happiness.

Having said that, what is interesting is “Dublin goes dark.” What this does mean (which the article does not talk about) is that if employees are able to make a clear distinction between work and home, happy or unhappy employees can be equally productive – leave your pains at home and be productive and vice versa!


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