Is Even Workplace Paradise Torture?

For those of us in workplaces that feel like orphanages, Google sounds like paradise—a place with in-office recreational equipment, free sushi bars, and furnishings so comfortable it feels like you’re working in a luxurious version of your own living room. But, apparently, like most things, the grass is always greener somewhere else.

I saw an article in the New York Post recently featuring interviews with Google employees who were not as happy as they thought they would be. For example, one employee said he was not happy being a big fish in a big pond instead of a big fish in a little pond, as he was at his old company. He was used to being seen and treated as someone out of the ordinary, and at Google, where it sounds like geniuses are more common than discarded pennies, he feels taken for granted. That brings up an interesting point for all companies that seek to attract and retain high-potential employees: Once you get them, how do you make them feel like valued, star employees? This is especially a challenge if for a large company courting standout employees from much smaller companies.

Heightened competition was another downside for some Google employees. If you were at a smaller, or less high-profile, company previously, it must be a shock to not only be one of many super-talented employees, but to have to compete against all those employees with parallel talent levels. What is the best way for a company to handle this? How do you create an environment that encourages highly accomplished employees to work together, rather than to simply compete? Some companies have “teambuilding” activities, such as participating in charitable endeavors together, but, as I wrote in a previous blog, the best tactic may be to develop a system that ties the fate of each individual in a work group to the performance of the whole group. That way, they won’t have any choice but to work together and support one another.

At companies like Google, that often are doing experimental work intended to be rolled out far into the future, employees can feel their work is too abstract. It sounded to me from the interviews I read in the article that the employees felt the company could be insular in the technology projects it had its employees concentrating on, and that it sometimes felt like they were working on “nothing worthwhile.” When projects are based on technology that is so cutting-edge it doesn’t even exist outside of the company, and the projects are so forward-thinking they likely won’t get implemented for a decade, or more, it can be demoralizing. Employees can feel like their work is theoretical and unrelated to the technology that is most relevant right now. How do you keep employees inspired in this kind of research and development environment? I think these long-range projects need to be balanced with projects that offer shorter-term fulfillment. The employees could have their time divided so that at least a small portion of their time every week is spent working on projects that will be rolled out within the next year or two.

Most surprisingly to me, “Not have a great manager” was listed at the end of the article as part of the laundry list of complaints from Google employees. That a company the article points out is regularly “a fixture on Glassdoor’s Top 10 Best Places to Work” has “not great” managers is shocking to me. I assumed that since Google is such a coveted place to work, there would be no tolerance for managers who are poorly reviewed by their employees. But maybe the problem, as at most companies, is that managers are not reviewed at all by their employees. So executives are left unaware of the kind of disliked managers who drive star employees to competitor companies. Do you think it’s important to keep your eye on the managers who supervise the high-potential employees you tried so hard to attract? Hand-in-hand with your high-potentials program, you could have a high-potentials retention program that includes yearly reviews of managers. Managers of these employees would know they are under close scrutiny, and would be judged harshly if there is an exodus of high-potential employees from their ranks. They would have an incentive to do what’s necessary to not only get the best work possible from these employees, but to retain them long-term, too. What do you think? What do you do at your own company to ensure your achievement in attracting topnotch talent isn’t undone by unlikable, difficult managers?

What can we learn from Google’s dissatisfied employees? Do you have the same challenges at your own company? How do you attract top talent, and then create a collaborative, supportive environment in which employees feel fulfilled?


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