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.


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

  1. I fear a future where Google chooses our life direction by analyzing detailed algorithms crafted by analyzing the crumbs of data I leave on their server when I think I’m alone with the net. Your review didn’t make me feel that Google had the HR process cased, it reminded me of how deviously thorough they are in the analysis of a persons worth. I enjoyed your review not for what it said but for the dark vision it promised for our future when Google realizes it’s potential to pollinate other areas of people evaluation and management. With Web 2.0 + we have the opportunity not only for democracy but for tyranny and enhanced social control. I hope Google chooses the white and not the black hats. Thanks for a fun review Justin.

  2. Thanks Kevin. My biggest fear with Googlers is that they think they are always on the white-hat side, and thus anything they do is not-evil. It explains why they could develop Glass without any self-awareness of its cyborg implications.

  3. I also enjoyed this review, I hope to never have a task of hiring some 50,000 people in a short period of time, well ever really. Sounds great to have all the comforts of home at work, but if you are working so much who needs a home? Thanks for the employee quote, brought some reality to my personal idyllic vision of the Google workplace. Thanks for saving me from this book.

    • Thanks Rachel. I also made the mistake of listening to it on my daily walking commute to help speed up the process. I think the author/narrator meant to sound enthusiastic. But I couldn’t wait for his earnest dronings to be out of my life forever.

  4. Excellent review! Agree that work is sharing and giving, collaborating and helping, creating added value and living more than the half of our time with others and outside familiy! Rules have to protect workers not to accomodate their spirits!

    • The author does make an interesting point – that we spend a lot of our lives at work, so work should not be soul-crushing. The irony is that Googlers (a term I’ve come to despise) spend A LOT of their lives at work.

  5. I find that people generally are biased in that they believe that the solutions they come up with for specific problems will be universally applicable. This bias causes people to ignore the complexity of the world and of the many variables that make up the context of any situation.

    It seems that this book has some of this bias, in that it has a “it works for google so it must be good enough for you” mentality, assuming I am reading your review correctly.

    I find this bias in many of the readings that show up in the web safari with many instances of “this worked for me so it is the best thing in the world. you should do it too.” that a lot of the articles convey.

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