This Google Search Will Take a Hundred Years

Mark Sagor

always connectedOrganizations are on a quest to identify the essential elements of employee engagement. They dream of building cultures and work environments that will capture every last ounce of employee discretionary effort.

They want employees who arrive at work every day with all the optimism, ambition and enthusiasm that they brought on their first day believing that happy people create more productive work environments than grumpy people.

The problem is that the precise recipe for employee engagement has a very complex formula and the underlying scientific research needs more longitudinal data and an improved algorithm.

Google is working on it.

Google, never short on ambition, is two years into what it hopes will be a 100 year study (the gDNA Survey) about how to “build great work environments, cultivate high performing teams and maximize productivity.”

They are collecting data from a randomly selected and representative group of more than 4000 Googlers. They survey them twice a year about factors like personality traits, attitudes about work and coworkers, and their feelings toward change.

Early reports have focused on questions of work-life balance and how Googlers handle the technology that makes them accessible 24/7 and blurs the lines between work and home life.

It turns out that only 31% of people, the study calls them segmentors, are able to break free of this burden of blurring and always being connected to work processes and conversations. These segmentors manage to erect a psychological firewall between their jobs and their personal lives and successfully block out the demanding din of emails and deadlines.

While researching a previous post on work-life balance I received an email which summarizes the segmentor point of view:

Once 8 hours are consumed for a day job, that’s it. There is to be no mental longing, musing, or prattling about work once it’s complete. The mind must separate itself and use the available time to do what it wishes to recharge for the next day. Obsession working is a surefire way to reach burnout and, perhaps, loathing the job. Personal life is essential to sanity and productivity, therefore it must be respectable and separate.”

It’s not so simple, however, for the other 69% who the study calls integrators. For them thoughts of work, messages from coworkers and the process of solving work problems never stops.

Not surprisingly, more than half of the integrator group want to switch teams and get better at segmenting.

The fact that half of the integrators want to be segmentors suggests that many people struggle to make this transition. They want to become segmentors but haven’t yet found a way to do it.

Google is interested in the question of how employers can design work environments and cultures which make it easier for employees to disconnect.

In their “Dublin Goes Dark” experiment they supported “segmenting” by asking people to leave their devices at the front gate before going home for the night. The result, many Googlers reported, was a restful evening with much less stress.

It all comes down to trusting your people.

Organizations will only invest in developing work environments which support segmenting if they trust that employees care enough, and have the business judgment, not to go dark during key operational periods when they need to stay connected.

As one of our clients put it recently in a company strategy session: “Heroic effort is great and necessary episodically, but it should not be our standard operating procedure for getting things done.”

I don’t think Google will need a full century to verify the wisdom of this statement.