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Making Big Operations Feel Like Small Organizations


by Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

LEC Speaker Brian Welle Discusses How Virtual Technology Helps Google’s HR Maintain a Face-to-Face, Innovative Atmosphere

As organizations continue to expand across the globe, employees can spend less time face to face. But advances in communication technology and the ability to work in "real time" across distance have transformed how employees work together, explains SIOP Member Brian Welle, and these innovations have helped Google maintain an intimate feel at an international company.   
Welle, People Analytics Manager at Google, will discuss his experiences at Google during The Virtual Workforce: Designing, Leading, and Optimizing,” SIOP’s 7th annual Leading Edge Consortium (LEC), which will take place October 14-15, 2011 at the Hilton Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky.
The event will bring together thought leaders from academia and practice in a day-and-a-half event focusing on the exciting topic of the virtual workforce. Speakers will discuss virtual work and collaboration, social media, and technology for recruitment, selection, performance, and management, among other topics. Registration is now open, so reserve your space today and take advantage of the early registration discount. Registration costs $425 on or before August 29.

Register for “The Virtual Workforce” today!

Using Google as an example, Welle will discuss (a) how employees use technology to connect in new ways, (b) the impact on Google's culture and innovation, and (c) how HR practices—from staffing to the annual survey—can capitalize on employees' social connections.
At Google, an innovative culture and environment is necessary for success, Welle said. Face-to-face interaction may not always be possible as employees span farther distances, so every employee at Google has access to a multitude of virtual tools—IM and video technology, video conferencing and chat, and Google Plus—to help them collaborate and communicate across distances and to help the company’s HR department communicate with them.
“Every single employee at Google has access to ways of communicating with employees who are working online no matter where they are,” Welle explained. “The norm has become that we see each other as we talk, so it’s a way for Google to maintain a culture of face-to-face communication, and it enables us to maintain that culture even when people aren’t working in the same place.”
"Googlers” send information internally as well as receive information from Google HR regarding policy changes, employee feedback, and reasons for decisions.
“Every decision we make on the HR side is fueled by data,” Welle said. “So when we made adjustments to our compensation programs, we not only told employees what changes were being made but why – and, importantly, what research underlies the changes. Another venue for communicating decisions, which reinforces Google’s culture, is the weekly company meeting called TGIF. The CEO and other leaders hold a live, no-questions-off-the-table meeting with the whole company. Any Googler can attend these meetings.”
Welle said social media and virtual technology have allowed Google to maintain this communication despite its rapid growth over the last decade.

“In 1998, every employee at Google could fit in one big room,” Welle explained. “The collaborations this close environment fostered allowed innovation to flourish during those early years. As Google grew, the question became, ‘can we sustain that small company feel when people are sitting down the hall, or in another building, or in another country?’ Technology has enabled Google to maintain its startup, face-to-face feel even though we’re now in dozens of countries. Communication technology allows people to forge and sustain strong connections across distance. We grew from 100 employees to over 25,000 in just over 10 years. If you think about that scale, and that timeframe, you realize our culture could have been destroyed. But it wasn’t – Google today is, at its heart, the same company it was in the early days. I don’t know if that would have been possible in any other era.”
Welle explained that it’s not just about the culture but about everything that gets lost when employees don’t have the ability to see each other.
“It keeps people well-informed; it keeps people connected to the culture, connected to each other, and allows people to do their jobs better because they are in the loop” he explained. “Having better ways to communicate also means people can work from more places. Telecommuting is easier now because I can see my boss and chat with coworkers face to face.”
Although this technology may not be for every organization, Welle said it can help those companies like Google, which rely on employee interaction for collaboration and innovation.
“I don’t think this has to be in every type of organizations,” he stressed. “I think it’s particularly true of a knowledge industry. If you are in an industry where people are working on the same project across distance, giving people the ability to have face-to-face chats and communicate that way, maybe it is not absolutely essential, but it makes collaborating a lot easier.”
This culture of information sharing has also changed people expectation of HR, Welle explained.
“Traditionally, HR is seen by employees as a service to the organization, and an employee might think ‘I am going to get paid every week, I can call my HR rep with problems, and so on,’” he said. “We like our HR reps to be as embedded in the organization as possible, and this has led employees to expect to be well-informed about our activities, and to have their voices heard when they are personally affected by our work.”
These open lines of communication not only help employees stay informed but can also help HR accomplish its goals, Welle explained.
“A lot of times HR is a black box to employees, and that’s reflected in employees’ participation in HR-driven initiatives,” he explained. “Take the employee opinion survey, for example. A lot of employers get 50% response rates, or 70% on the high end. We created a brand around our survey and employees actually own significant pieces of it, such as action planning on results. We (People Operations, or HR) create it and send it out, but everything around that process is transparent. We post all of the aggregate results -- everyone in the company gets to see how we’re doing. By HR sharing information at Google, it’s made us more relevant to the lives of Googlers. It’s created interest and allowed employees to get involved in HR issues.”
The strategy has worked for Google, with a response rate to the organization’s surveys around 90%. Welle explained that organizations should match their HR strategy to how their company does its business. For example, if you’re a data-driven company, you need to have a data-driven HR organization, he explained.

Welle explained using these technologies can also help solidify HR’s role and contributions.

“Often HR communication is more top down,” he explained. “There’s less thought put into helping people understand how decisions are made. However, greater transparency around how decisions are made, and soliciting input from employees through research, surveys, and other means, builds the legitimacy of HR. Google is an engineering organization, and as a result, people are very numbers oriented. HR can be seen as a touchy feel function, but it helps employees see that we are one of them when we speak their language: data, research, numbers.”
Welle said he hopes LEC attendees will be able to take his experiences at Google and apply them to their own organizations and HR departments.

“I’d like attendees to change their perspective on the information that HR shares with the rest of the organization,” he explained. “I feel like a lot of colleagues at other companies are protective of information or they are kind of closed in and protect what they have. We at Google HR are very open, and that totally frees you up to experiment with technology, with research, with just about everything.”
Learn more about Welle’s and other presenters LEC presentations on the LEC page!
Brian Welle has been a member of Google's People Analytics team since August, 2006. During that time he has conducted research and designed programs that strengthened Google’s HR initiatives. He currently leads a team of analysts that has three main goals: (a) guide Google's talent management, learning programs, career development and diversity practices through the strategic use of data; (b) launch surveys that take the pulse of the organization, including the annual employee opinion survey, and empower clients to act on the results; and (c) conduct basic HR research through the People and Innovation Lab (PiLab), an internal HR think-tank focused on understanding (and improving!) manager effectiveness, employee health, and innovation. PiLab research has been featured in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, HR Executive Online, and the MSNBC program Your Business, among others. Prior to joining Google, Brian was a research director at Catalyst, a non-profit consulting organization specializing in diversity, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from New York University.