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

Available in bookstores nationwide.
There seems to be a minor industry around books from inside, or about, Google. This one is from deep inside – Laszlo Bock is the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. In simpler times he would be called the HR Director I suppose.

At Google, ‘People Operations’ includes not only hiring and firing, but staff retention, efficiency, evaluation, effectiveness, happiness and culture. And the scale of the operation is overwhelming. Google receives something like three million unsolicited job applications per year. There are many tens of thousands of staff, scattered all over the world. Many, if not most, of them are smart, creative people who could work elsewhere. They are people with ideas, opinions and other job opportunities which are often more lucrative.

This is the story of how Google has developed what it claims to be the ‘ultimate workplace’, staffed by a ‘talent machine’. Regardless of the validity of the slogans, it’s an impressive achievement.

Work has changed – at least in places like Google. Bock looks at the standard HR functions – recruitment, retention, remuneration, reward and the like. He takes the reader through the things that Google does now, and the way things became as they are. He is not shy to share the mistakes that have been made in the past, and the challenges not yet met.

The book is loosely based around common HR issues, which are analysed and adapted to meet Google’s needs. Google is data driven, and so is the book. Many fundamental beliefs about work have been analysed and challenged, then tested. Who would have thought that giving people money might not be a great motivator? But the facts are there: sometimes money isn’t the best motivator. Often aphorisms such as ‘only hire people smarter than yourself’ are reworked with surprising results. But that’s always done with a solid foundation of actual experience and data. Often there is academic research involved as well.

I was struck by the large amount of effort put into building and maintaining Google’s carefully designed culture. It was enlightening to find that many of the infamous perks of working at Google are intended to build culture rather than to retain staff. It was surprising too to find that most of these perks – hairdressers, massage chairs, games rooms and many others – are at no or very low cost to the company. The expensive perks, such as free transportation and meals, are carefully designed to increase the productivity and effectiveness of employees, not only their happiness.

This isn’t a manual of procedures or a collection of recipes on how to run a business. It is a book to provoke new ways of thinking about work. The author is at the top of his profession, and has been recognised widely. He is also a very good writer, with an easy, engaging style – although occasionally the asides get a bit twee. It is worth repeating that he very open about mis-steps in the past, and what has been learnt from them.

While the book is aimed at a general audience, it will have special appeal to managers and executives. Google is not a typical company by any standard. While I was waiting for this book to arrive I read that their new Chief Financial Officer had received a $70 million ‘golden hello’. That’s not an HR issue many of us have to confront. And quite a lot of Google’s policies and procedures are predicated around the sheer scale of the operation – in terms of people and of money. And few workplaces have a culture like Google’s.

Despite these differences between Google and wherever you work, the book is entertaining, and worth reading if only to reflect on how standard management practices may not be the only option out there.

by Gordon Findlay

Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
by Laszlo Bock
Published by John Murray Publishers Ltd
ISBN 9781444792362

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