Google searches staff to gain HR insights

gDNA survey collects in-depth employee information
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/16/2014

Google has a reputation for doing things differently, especially when it comes to the workplace. So it should come as no surprise that the company has started an ambitious, long-term study to better understand work, looking at issues such as work-life balance, problem-solving, productivity, performance and happiness.

The survey, gDNA, collects information about employees’ innate characteristics (nature) and surroundings (nurture). Two times per year, more than 4,000 Googlers voluntarily complete the in-depth survey built on scientifically validated questions and measurement scales.

The survey asks about static traits (such as personality), changing characteristics (such as work projects or co-workers) and relationships.

“We then consider how all these factors interact, as well as with biographical characteristics like tenure, role and performance,” says Laszlo Block, senior vice-president of people operations at Google, in a recent blog.

“We’re two years into what we hope will be a century-long study. We’re already getting glimpses of the smart decisions today that can have (a) profound impact on our future selves, and the future of work overall.”

In the short term, Google hopes to learn how to improve well-being, how to cultivate better leaders and how to keep employes engaged for longer periods of time.

It’s the first time Google has done such a massive, long-term study, according to Michelle DeBeyer, HR business partner at Google Canada in Kitchener, Ont., citing the inspiration of the longitudinal Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts that continues today, having begun in 1948 with more than 5,000 subjects.

People are the number one asset at Google, by far, according to Steven Woods, engineering director at Google Canada in Kitchener, adding the company invests an enormous amount of time and energy in finding the right employees who will be happy and successful.

“We put a very high value on this and the more we can understand about how people work and are productive, the better…. We’re going to learn some amazing things. That’s the great thing about data analysis, teasing out the salient points and correlations from causations. Thankfully, this is one of the things we’re very good at.”

Segmentors, integrators

One early finding of gDNA is that with technology making work possible anytime, anywhere, only 31 per cent of respondents are able to break free of the “burden of blurring” between personal and work lives. Google calls these people “segmentors” — they draw a psychological line between work stress and the rest of their lives, says Block. For “integrators,” on the other hand, work looms constantly in the background — though more than one-half want to do better at segmenting.

“The fact that such a large percentage of Google’s employees wish they could separate from work but aren’t able to is troubling, but also speaks to the potential for this kind of research,” he says. “By identifying where employees fall on this spectrum, we hope that Google can design environments that make it easier for employees to disconnect.”

The company tries to empower people to live their lives the way they’d like and work the way they’d like, says Woods.

“So this is really interesting, over time, because people may choose to see themselves as integrators and make themselves less happy, so there’s some really interesting observations here just from this one point.”

Google tries to create programs that help and support this issue in terms of managing people’s lifestyles, says DeBeyer. That can include in-house massages or weeks with no meetings — a popular move with engineers, she says.

“Programs like that are working at giving people a little more peace and downtime.”

Google also runs shuttle buses for the one-hour ride between Toronto and Kitchener, and the WiFi onboard allows people to get work done during the commute, she says. People also appreciate the free meals at the office.

“There’s a lot more things we could be doing and this study might help us figure out what those things should be and will help us with our long-term HR planning,” says DeBeyer.

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