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Project Oxygen Launched by Google

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Introduction

Back in 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google, a multinational technology company, when they were PHD students at Stanford University. Google now specializes in fast internet related services and products. Speed matters the most for them, and their product-line crosses over into search engines, software, hardware(like cell phones and in-home assistance tools like google home), online advertising technologies, and cloud-computing.

Google currently operates worldwide in more than 40 countries with its headquarters in Mountain View, California. Google claims its goal is to have a workforce that represents the diversity of its locations. In addition to being famous for its services, Google became famous for its employee-friendly environment and perks.. Over the years, their mission statement developed right along with the world they created for. Right off the bat, the mission was to “develop the best product and generate revenue later.” In time, their employee missions evolved to include “don’t be evil” and “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

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When you look past the product they create and instead look at the people who create them, a deeper mission and belief comes out. As mentioned, Google remains famous for its technology, facilities, and perks for employees. At the core of the company, however, are their HRM practices which have distinguished the company for its focus on creating a culture that supports employee empowerment. It hires employees for their ability as well as their experience and invests a lot of money (an average salary at google inc. is $112,458) in employee salaries and perks to ensure that employees are motivated and performing at or above standards. Unlike other companies who decide pay based on tenure, Google pays their employees on exact contributions. For example, A new employee with a great idea can win trips and make thousands more a year than a tenured engineer with no new or innovative ideas.

Google has remained one of the top companies to work for because it has exceptional human resources and management. One of Google’s main goal is to focus on innovation and it does this by hiring and retaining the most talented employees. That being said, nothing is perfect, and over the years, Google created initiatives to improve their management style and employee satisfaction. One of these was “Project Oxygen,” but other efforts have moved too slow to fix the problems they were made for including plans to increase diversity at Google and plans to counteract a higher than average turn-over.

Google Hiring and Job Policy Development

Before google started to come under fire in recent years for a lack of diversity and a possibly lax attitude about employee opinions, Google developed a strong and consistent hiring strategy. Through their just over two decades of time as a company, they began to cut out middle management positions and focused on creating a “flat” company. Early on, they created six engineering-based product groups that all reported directly to the then CEO. Google considered this a lateral company move, and while not sustainable with the constantly growing company, it did, for a time, cut back on the costs and “telephone” nature of a multi-tiered hierarchical system.

By the mid 2010’s between one and three million people applied annually for positions within google with only 5000 employees hired on average. This between .5% and .02% chance of receiving a position gave the hiring staff at google the pick of the litter when it came to most positions. With this, their hiring policy took form. They were known to say “Hire only A people, and they’ll hire other A people. If you hire a B person, they’ll hire C or D people.” This wasn’t the first nor the last time that people would be stripped down to data-like terms when hiring was discussed at google. Google even developed a name for this kind of hiring behavior: people operations.

Once hired at google, certain markers of the environment made themselves known. One main marker was that engineers were #1 at the company and everyone else was given a second class position, if that. From the outset, the creators of google believed that engineers and not marketing nor administrative people should lead the company. With this belief out there, they also were following the mantra of “transparency, goal setting, frequent performance reviews, and a less-hierarchical work structure.” These performance reviews can be read of in more detail within the section entitled “Project Oxygen.”

Google worked hard to reward people and make work a fun environment. They paid unfairly and based on merit not based on tenure, as previously mentioned. The workplace did not just consist of desks and places to sit and talk about work, but massages, games, and other activities litter(ed) the workplace. Google even encouraged the engineers to design workplaces for them to be comfortable. They just wanted managers to set-up the workplace in the most conducive way for an engineer’s mind to work. Google even believed that 20% of the work-life should allow engineers to work on personal projects on company time.The trend of engineers designing the company continues even unto hiring practices. Unlike many competitors and other industry leaders, managers at google do not have sole discretion for promoting the workers, instead peer-reviews decided to whom a promotion would go to (in the limited capacity that a flat work-place can provide).

While all these notions did help google to become a desirable place to work and an industry leader, holes in the system, and flaws in the machine remained. For starters, by pushing engineers to the top of the food-chain and creating a hierarchy in importance instead of a hierarchy within departments, job satisfaction varied from department to department. By treating people like data and hiring based on strict numbers (high SAT scores, high college scores, personality profiles) a less-than diverse workforce of like-minded and predominantly white men dominated the company on every level. Lastly, all the ranking of employees on a forced-curve and small teams vs large departments led many people to fail to see a future at a company that didn’t have a place to grow. While Project Oxygen would solve some of these issues, not all have been solved as of yet.

Project Oxygen

Google’s Project Oxygen was a research project launched in the early 2000s that was done to see the impact of managers at the company. It later turned into a comprehensive program aimed at helping Google employees to become better managers. Project Oxygen is based on eight important management attributes. By the end of 2012, the program had already been implemented within the company for several years and there was significant evidence pointing to improvements in managerial performance and effectiveness (Harvard Business Publishing).

Pre- Project Oxygen

Since Google’s inception, Page and Brin had established an informal culture within Google. In Googleplex, the employees had moveable office chairs and desks were made out of wooden doors and dogs were also allowed in the office premises.

This culture was made for encouraging collegiality and to break down any interpersonal barriers so that it would lead to rapid development of new ideas.

When Google started making money with Adwords in late 2000, Google hired Novell’s CEO Eric Schmidt as Google’s new CEO with Page and Brin taking the titles of President. By 2002, Google’s employee headcount reached 700 with almost all employees working from Mountain View. But, at the time of Google’s IPO in 2004, the company had reached 3000 employees with a “triumvirate-like” management approach with Page, Brin, and Schmidt working at the apex.

By end of 2012, the employees reached 35,000 in numbers and the company was organized into three primary groups – Engineering, Global Business Organization(Sales), and General and Administrative(G&A). Google was initially a engineer-dominated company with as few as 5000 managers,1000 directors,100 Vice Presidents. These numbers were far less than other companies with same size of employees. Engineering managers had 30 direct reportees under them. Engineers just wanted to “develop and debug,” they did not want managers interference with them. This raised the basic question of whether managers were needed. This was answered by an experiment which was done in Google in 2002 when few hundred engineers reported only to 4 managers to make the organization entirely flat. As a result, CEO’s and Presidents had to resolve expense approval requests and interpersonal conflicts of employees.

Thus, Google supported its rapid growing headcount by hiring top level talents. It had various filters for hiring employees like being flexible, taking initiatives, having a collaborative spirit,etc. Google still had lot of employees which were young and craved self-management more than managers telling them what to do. Also, since Google had a dynamic work environment, people were moving continuously under differing managers, so a consistent approach was developed for the reporting of employees to managers.

True to form, Google started making data analytics an integral part of decision making processes and raised the question within Google that whether Managers were really needed? Thus, an initiative came from People Operations team in the year 2009 to have a People Analytics group which would analyze and present the answer to the question of whether the managers were really needed in an organization like Google or whether google could function without managers. A few members from People Analytics group created a small team called People and Innovation Lab (PiLab), and PiLab started the Project Oxygen initiative to answer the question on Manager’s existence in the Company.

Project Oxygen – Research Work

Project Oxygen came to the conclusion that Managers were essential to a company. Thus the name, Project Oxygen, with the word Oxygen used to indicate the essential nature managers have in a company by comparing them with the element essential for breathing. Project Oxygen was basically a hypothesis driven approach based upon data analytics for the hypothesis that “Managers don’t matter” in the organisation.

Initially, the team reviewed the data of the employees which left Google and focused on their reasons of leaving. They were primarily concerned with the reason where the employees had stated low satisfaction with the manager as a reason for leaving the company.The team found some relations between low satisfaction with managers and high turnover rates, but the data was not robust enough to come to a conclusion about the whole generic employee numbers.

A new metric was designed to validate this hypothesis.Google managers were ranked on the basis of two metrics of Googlegeist ratings and performance review scores. Then, these rankings were compared with their turnover rates. Based on the data of 2008, it was observed that the high-scoring managers had lower turnover rates in their team than low scoring managers. Also, even the slightest change in the scores or ratings of managers had a significant impact on the performance of the teams.

Better scoring Managers had teams with better performance than rest of the teams. Also, these teams had higher innovation rates, work-life balance, and career development. These all findings were independent of the seniority,performance,tenure or the promotions of the managers and the teams.

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