‘Googliness’ is all about family

A company's culture changes all the time, which is why UAE firms – big and small – must become more agile to define and improve it just as Google has.

Teams with stronger cohesion perform better, says Yvonne Agyei, Google’s vice president of international people operations. Satish Kumar / The National
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We’ve all listened with envy to tales of Google’s recreational nap pods, free food and foosball tables, but as the company has grown, its “Googliness” is far more about feeling like a family, says its vice president of international people operations, Yvonne Agyei.

“We see that teams with stronger cohesion perform better,” says the London-based Ms Agyei, who has been with Google since 2003, just five years after its foundation.

“That’s what we get written about – foosball and nap pods – but our sense of family and community, and how we treat each other, resonates with the people we hire.”

Google could take away all the perks and it would still have the same culture, she said, speaking at the Human Capital Forum in Dubai.

“Employees create culture and it doesn’t stay the same. We’re now 65,000 and some things are not the same as when I joined. But the sense of family is.”

Culture is a practice, she says, and no one in the business is too big to toe that line. “Even with ‘acqui-hires’, where we hire companies for the people, we still interview those people and look for companies that are already ‘Googly’. And we have had people exit who are brilliant but just can’t work with others. Google is not the place for them.”

Carl Rhodes, the chief executive of the Human Capital Institute, the American HR education and thought leadership company, says that managing culture should be an agile process. “You are never too big or established to reaffirm that,” he said during the Dubai forum. “Think of change management as a mindset rather than a process.”

He cites internet hosting company GoDaddy and software giant HP as examples of companies that have had to become more agile to improve their culture.

At GoDaddy, Agile methodology was being used to develop software rapidly and incrementally; the company decided to bring the same spirit to its human resources, using two-week sprints to deliver results, without formal, lengthy HR processes and forms, instead using checklists “as a weapon”. The concept of the dojo, an exercise in programming to help a programmer hone skills through practise, was also implemented to help coach teams from within.

HP, meanwhile, has been in a five-year turnaround under Meg Whitman, the chief executive, after buying 70 companies in five years and a “gazillion” HR programmes, Mr Rhodes says. The company needed to freeze all initiatives and go back to its core principles – which had first been posted on a Californian garage wall in 1957 by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard when they were creating the company from that small space. The company has now been cleanly split into two distinct identities: Hewlett Packard Enterprise for software and business services, and HP retaining its original PC business.

A survey by the Human Capital Institute last year showed that 80 per cent of HR practitioners said their company’s leaders still relied on “gut feelings” to make decisions about their people; only 13 per cent used employee data to guide their talent policies.

Not so at Google, where the employee satisfaction survey is a “huge tool”, offering actionable data and comments from employees on their managers, environment and leadership. It gives plenty of data, including invaluable year-on-year comparisons and trends, Ms Agyei says, but Google has to act upon the results to create trust – otherwise it’s “data for data’s sake”.

A couple of years ago, the survey showed Google trending down on the quality of its products, with a tendency to launch and then iterate – and it was a “good wake-up call”, she says, for senior leadership. Companies like Apple, so well known for its design, had raised the bar and Google’s co-founder Larry Page, now chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, realised Google was not rewarding maintenance within its engineering culture, and that a change was needed to recognise “excellent products”.

The survey has traditionally been run annually but is now being moved to an 18-month cycle to allow time for resulting change.

Ms Agyei says the company can actually learn a lot from its Dubai office, where the multicultural workforce is “impressive” with “easy communications”. “They’re tightly connected: there’s chitchat over breakfast, everyone sits down together for lunch and I sense they see each other outside work,” she says.

“It’s a respectful culture where almost everyone comes from somewhere else, but the team still creates a sense of shared objectives.”

So what can a local company in the UAE learn from a giant like Google? “Any company can define the culture and values it wants – and nurture them,” Ms Agyei says. “Remember, it will change over time and with different leaders. Like parents, you have to embody it and make it real. It doesn’t require loads of money.”


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