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People Analytics: Managing Labor and Space

New Orleans   Sure it helps that Google makes more money than God, and, yes, I have to wonder whether Google will still look like a cross between a day care center and an upscale college campus in 20 years, but they have a point and a huge platform on which to make it that can’t help but inspire some envy from those of us still locked in more proletarian spaces.  Much of this turns out to be driven by something they call “people analytics,” a combination of data and measurements that guide “decisions cover compensation, talent management, hiring and all other HR issues” according to one of the managers in their People Analytics team.

Trying to get my arms around this I read a bit about their Oxygen Project to try and determine what makes a “good boss,” and found some of the bullet points helpful, right on, and, not surprisingly, a bit skewed from the standard human resources department pap.  A piece in Venture Beat hit the highlights:

“One surprise was that a boss’s technical expertise is much less important to employees than the ability to take a genuine interest in their lives and careers. The best bosses didn’t micromanage, had a clear vision for the team and were results-oriented.”

They also found that one-on-one meetings between supervisors and the workforce that were balanced and universal (i.e. without favoritism!) were essential to strong performance and satisfaction.

James Stewart from the Times reported a glowing review from a field trip to Google’s space in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan.

 “…led me on a brisk and, at times, dizzying excursion through a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.

Having more money than God is still very important to Google once you look at this worker’s comments to Stewart,”

“…the perks, she added, are “amazing.” In the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned subsidized massages (with massage rooms on nearly every floor); free once-a-week eyebrow shaping; free yoga and Pilates classes; a course she took called “Unwind: the art and science of stress management”; a course in advanced negotiation taught by a Wharton professor; a health consultation and follow-up with a personal health counselor; an author series and an appearance by the novelist Toni Morrison; and a live interview of Justin Bieber by Jimmy Fallon in the Google office.

Stewart also quotes Ben Waber who is the author of People Analytics on Google:

“Google has really been out front in this field,” he said. “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating. Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”

There’s no fixed schedule or time clocks, since the teams work it out, nor are workers required to even show up in the building, though some evidence suggests that the space itself and the interactions it encourages make it an attractor.  Having read this after a tense negotiating exchange over whether or not taking collectively bargained sick days were grounds for management to declare workers were suffering “excessive” absences, I felt like once again like I was reading about the lives of the rich and famous and other fictional accounts of worlds unknown and seldom imagined.

Reading elsewhere about the labor troubles and morale meltdown at another high end institution, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco was a quick refresher course in the rarity of “people analytics.”

Joe McDonald, for example, a staff photographer, noted that six weeks before his firing in November, he had worn prison stripes to a meeting about a new thumbprint-scan time clock.

I have to admit the big boss there seems zany with sharp skills for the sound bite which must make her a dominant force in the board room of the museum, based on these two wonderful quotes from Diane Wilsey, the board chair and clearly the stick stirring all of this tumultuous drink.

Debunking charges about transparency of operations, Wilsey says,

“ I almost have to give 72 hours of public notice if I want to gain weight,”

Defending the charges of chaos and confusion in the museum and its work and display spaces, he retorted:

She said the success of the museums spoke for itself, noting that their popularity was evidence that the community, even young people, have embraced them. “When I first came to San Francisco, the pickup place was the Safeway by the marina on Wednesday night,” she said. “Now it’s Friday night at the de Young.”

Google is hardly a model for the rest of us, but it is hard to miss the fact that this people analytics revolution might be worth joining before employers like Wilsey on the high end and my buddies at the Regional Transportation Agency on the lower end force us to have thumbprints and surgically implanted tracking devices in order to defend our living wages.

  • Kenneth

    The fundamental problem with the Standard employee-employer relationship that I see is this: A decision was made a long time ago to divide the work between those who think and those who labor. The problem arises when people are promoted into the thinking group based solely on the fact that they can give orders and not because they can think. As a result, the people who understand the industry are laboring and the ones who are supposed to be thinking are just bossing people around.

    All due respect,