Where does Google think it’s going with its corporate culture volte-face?
I’d like to return to a subject I discussed in August: Google, whose corporate culture has long been admired, seems set on abandoning the idealism that led it to encourage its employees to openly discuss its policies, to engage in activism and exchange views, and to become a traditional company. In fact, from the evidence over the last couple of months, it seems to be returning to the practices of the companies of the past.
The company’s attempt to stop its employees from using Google forums to discuss anything remotely likely to generate controversy was overruled by the National Labor Relations Board, which has ordered it to assure staff they can discuss whatever they want without reprisals. Now, Google has hired a consultancy firm that specializes in discouraging unionization, and unsuccessfully attempted to cancel a discussion on the benefits of unionization at its Zurich offices. It has also developed tools to spy on employees to prevent them setting up labor associations, and sacked anybody actively involved in such initiatives or protests, while freezing out other employees protesting certain aspects of their working conditions.
In a move charged with symbolism, the company aims to eliminate its famous Friday general meetings, the TGIF, a beer and sandwich event that provided an opportunity to discuss any issue and a symbol of Google’s open culture. CEO Sundar Pichai, defended the decision, saying that “they don’t work in their current format.”
Some observers say that Google has been unable to adapt, or rather, overcome, the reality of Donald Trump’s America, and that the president’s three years in the White House have been a nightmare for a company once characterized as a place where people were happy. According to some analysts, Google is now mired in a civil war: senior employees who used to express themselves freely and that have protested against company decisions such as developing a censored search engine for China, carbon dioxide emissions or collaborating with the US immigration authorities are now finding that their future is in doubt. If they want to call attention to something they don’t like they have to become whistleblowers and contact the media anonymously. In short, the Google they joined has little to do with the Google of today.
Where’s the problem in all this? First of all, a company’s culture is what attracts and retains talent: most Google employees having worked in a company that many consider has changed the world as we know it, will have no problem finding another well-paid job. Secondly, younger people are increasingly activist and will not hesitate, in many cases, to take to the streets to demand that their governments take action against the climate emergency, who are aware that they are the last generation that can do something to change things, and who also have much more access to information than their forebears.
If Google insists on putting an end once and for all to the very culture that made it so attractive, unconventional and even a little rebellious in the eyes of many, and instead opts for a traditional, structured, hierarchical company where everybody has to toe the line, it will be applauded by its competitors and the startups to which its precious workforce will migrate. Eradicating a culture that affects more than 100,000 employees overnight is not easy, and even more so if what replaces that culture is retrograde.
In the midst of all this, is Sundar Pichai, a man who once had a reputation as a conciliatory manager and a skillful strategist, but who is increasingly being seen in a negative light. As for the company’s mythical founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are conspicuously absent from the debate. They’re busy doing other stuff.
Are we witnessing the end of one of the attractive corporate cultures, to be replaced by something radically different? What will be the consequences of this for a company that has become what it is because of its ability to attract some of the best talent in the industry? What happens to strategy when culture disappears?