Review: “Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead”, by Laszlo Bock

Among the rumoured lava lamps, bean bag chairs, gourmet (free) dining on-site, and campus-based yoga and massage perks, Google is still the standard bearer by reputation in Silicon Valley. In looking to Google as inspiration for my “Strategic Management in the Public Sector” class, I wasn’t so much interested in advice that had to do with creativity, productivity, and employee happiness. What I found most interesting and persuasive, of potentially greatest applicability to the context of public sector management, was what Google had found – through a data-intensive investigation – produced the best performing teams. It was for this reason that I decided to review Laszlo Bock’s “Work Rules!“.

In this book, Bock describes in great detail the theory-based experiments that Google has initiated under his tenure as head of their human resources (what Google calls “people operations”) department. Along the way, he imparts his Theory Y approach to people management and his advice for transforming how you lead an organization. Over fifteen chapters that range from hiring, promotions, salaries, and bonuses, to motivation, performance management, nudging, and creating a culture of “Googliness”, Bock recounts in great detail how Google has managed to grow from 6,000 to over 60,000 people while cultivating a community of people who enjoy coming to work.

I’m willing to conceded that my distaste for this book stems largely from my misguided attempt to learn what Google might have to say about public sector management. Bock spends much of his time on how to deal with the deluge of applications Google reviews every year (you can find various estimates, but 1 million is a good enough thumbnail), and how to structure the interminable rounds of interviews that applicants are subjected to. While a flood of qualified candidates is not at the top of the list of public sector management problems, I can certainly sympathize with those who have run this gauntlet because reading the relevant sections of this book (well, the entire thing, actually) felt just as long.

However, there was something very illuminating in his description of the care with which Google hires people – even when it had to grow by a factor of 10 over as many years. As I came to understand this process of “only hiring the best people”, it was confirmed for me that Googlers see selection in their company as equivalent to joining a priesthood, further confirming that Googlers like Bock think of their organization as a new form of religion, and working there as a type of calling. Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. But if you think that Dave Eggers “The Circle” is an over-the-top dystopia of life with Google, check out these quotes from current and former Googlers on what it’s actually like to work there, to wit:

Work/life balance. What balance? All those perks and benefits are an illusion. They keep you at work and they help you to be more productive. I’ve never met anybody at Google who actually [took] time off on weekends or on vacations. You may not hear management say, ‘You have to work on weekends/vacations’ but, they set the culture by doing so — and it inevitably trickles down.

If you someday find yourself in charge of “people operations” for a company with a steady stream of revenue, and need to carefully hire 50,000 people in a short period of time, this book will be perfect for you. Otherwise, remember that providing people with freedom at work to be creative and achieve their objectives includes the freedom to not go to yoga class if they don’t want to.