Monday, May 19, 2008

Google Finds That Perks Can't Keep Some Employees From Leaving

Google has one of the most employee pampering policies, but its losing star employees; what's happening?

Google's top 3 executives have pledged to stay with the company for two more decades. It's not hard to imagine why with the company's rampant success and amazing perks.Like a tropical paradise, the Google workplace environment sounds like some fantasy or flight of one's imagination. Employees get haute cuisine lunches cooked by renowned chefs. Childcare and swimming spas all come free as well. The workplace features art and brings in guest speakers like Barack Obama, which whether you love them or hate them, promise to yield above average water cooler chat. And tech training sessions are in no short supply.

Perhaps most famously, employees are able to devote one day a week, or 20 percent of their total work time, to anything they want. This famous perk supposedly has yielded many of the current Google products since its inception.

Despite the plush accoutrements, all is not well in paradise. Google is finding to its astonishment, that for the first time in its history, employees are leaving in droves. At Microsoft, or especially at Apple (notorious for its high turnover in upper management), this would seem business as usual. But for Google this is strange and frightening unfamiliar territory.

President of global communications and public affairs Elliot Schrage jumped ship to work at Facebook this last week. Just two months prior Sheryl Sandberg had left to become the number two executive at Facebook. And in April off to EMI went Google CIO Doug Merrill.And it’s not just executives -- its regular employees as well. Google is trying to downplay losses, saying that it’s replacing anything that it lost in IQ and is not suffering from some sort of brain power sapping. Maybe so, Google is still one of the most desired workplaces. However, the departures beg the question -- what gives?

Some analysts say that employees may feel that Google is trying too hard. While company dodge ball games, foosball tables, and bright color schemes may be what some dream of at work, analysts say that when the company actively promotes such features, it can risk seeming obnoxious. Valleywag, a tech gossip blog states, "What makes [some tech workspaces] so bad? Some offend with exposed fluorescent lights, gray cubicles and a dystopian-corporate environment. But others, with their pseudo-hip graffiti, kindergarten toys and plastic decorations—all in a desperate attempt to seem 'Internet-y'—come off even worse."

Other analysts say that coddling its employees has helped Google retain its employees for years, but now is helping to lose them. The truth is, these parties say, the kids someday want to grow up. Perks such as free-laundry service, free food, and bouncy ball chairs (yes, Google employees get those) may be fun for a time, but eventually employees feel the desire to advance to a position of higher leadership at a more "adult" company, which is easy due to Google's track record of success.

Says Aaron Schwartz on his blog
Raw Thought, "Google hires programmers straight out of college and tempts them with all the benefits of college life. Indeed, as the hiring brochures stress, the place was explicitly modeled upon college… But as the gleam wears off the Google, I can see why it's no place anyone would want to hang around for that long."Other analysis from critics center around stock options which are less bountiful these days, though still strong.

However, perhaps the most logical explanation to why employees are leaving is one centered on the nature of the actual work. As some analysts aptly point out, most Google employees are changing the world, or creating a brand new product rather merely making iterative minor refinements on an existing one. Under all the layers of "fun", the fact is Google is a lot like other tech companies, just a bit brawnier in the brains department.

Chuck Pappalardo, principal and managing director at Trilogy Search, an executive recruiting firm states, "A lot changes as a company becomes really successful and goes from being entrepreneurial to institutional. Sometimes the most fun part of a company like that is not working there when it is already a success, but growing it from the beginning. When a company reaches that point, some people will naturally transition out."

Sarcasm slinging pundit Fake Steve Jobs similarly states that the fun just leads up to a big disappointing realization about the true nature of the work. Says Fake Jobs, "[Google] makes a big deal of only hiring these super-high-IQ kiddies and the fact is that most of them truly are smart, but then you put them into this horribly dull and easy drone work on AdWords and AdSense and they're all bored to tears and totally disappointed because they really really really thought they were going to do something meaningful with their lives and now they're just worker bees--pampered worker bees, sure, but still...

"Others point out that many of departing employees are going to companies similar to Google, but merely younger and more new and exciting. Three early employees left to found the microblog site Twitter; three more to launch the video sharing site Ooyala. Forty employees have left for Facebook, accounting for 10 percent of Facebook's staff at the last count.Others take their winnings and quit working tech altogether and turn to investment.

Says Pappalardo, "A lot of people made a lot of money working there, and took some level of stock and there's a lot of cool, interesting stuff to do with this. Silicon Valley is probably the best place in the world for inventors with ideas, so it's not about leaving Google because you're unhappy, but because you're ready for the next big thing,"

With all the ruminations on the departures, an interesting aside to consider is provided by Phillip Lessen at Google Blogoscoped. Lessen points out that Google may eventually acquire some its former employees startups in a move much like the circle of life. What are the potential problems with such a move? Lessen warns, "Any such acquisition may be enough of a demoralizing factor to those who work at Google that it could be risky for Google's management to consider; it may almost equal telling their employees that the best way to achieve something at Google is to quit Google.

"It’s a humorous observation, perhaps; but quite astute and certainly a sign of the changing times for Google.

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