Monday, June 10, 2013

Progressive Employee Relations

I just watched the new movie, "The Internship", featuring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as two middle-aged salespeople with no tech experience going through a Google internship in Mountain View with a group of 21-year-olds.  In many ways, the movie felt like an attempt to advertise Google.  And it worked.  Hey Google, hiring any lawyers?

But Google's philosophy pushes the envelope of progressive employee relations, and it's worth some attention.

Google is well-reputed as among the best, if not the very best, companies to work for.  Remarkable features in the movie include free food, a slide from floor to floor, sleep pods where employees can take a nap to recharge, a Quidditch pitch - I'm fairly familiar with the various perks available to Google employees, though the Quidditch pitch was previously unknown to me.  Other perks are compensation based, with various bonuses available, including the 'peer bonus', where one employee may nominate a peer for a bonus based on exemplary performance on a project, etc.  This is great for workplace dynamics, encouraging achievement, and encouraging recognition of achievement by your peers.

It's largely about making the workplace attractive, to attract and retain the best talent.  The slide's a bit of a gimmick, to play up the 'cool' factor, but many of these aspects are of real value to employees.

On the flip side, however, there's value to the employer as well.  A space for employees to take a nap isn't strictly unheard of; 'sleep pods' are a new and modern twist, but it helps with productivity.  Free food keeps employees happy, but it also keeps them at work.  Extending the free food to family means that you can invite your family to join you for lunch:  End result - you get to spend time with your family and stay at work. Other recreation, and particularly resources for sports and physical fitness, are a natural extension of the fitness rooms offered by so many employers, to keep their employees physically and psychologically healthy.

Fundamentally, there seems to be a recognition that what's good for the employee, in the workplace, is good for the employer as well.  At least, when the working relationship is healthy.

But what can other employers, in other industries, take from this?  Most employers hesitate to offer too much freedom to employees, for fear of abuse.  (In Scott Adams' Dilbert comic, the Wally character comes to mind, who is always portrayed with coffee in hand, and who works very hard and intelligently to avoid doing any productive work.  One could easily imagine him hiding out in the sleep pod all day.)  After all, not only is Google a business which hires professionals for salaried positions with high quality productivity-based expectations, but they pick from the best of the best.  They can expect a great deal of their employees, and it is unlikely that abuse would be a significant problem.  Is the same true of unskilled employees?  Administrative and clerical workers?

One could certainly argue that the average office environment that models a workplace after Google would quickly develop its own ability to select only top candidates, but my question runs deeper:  If Google's employment practices were adopted widely, would the cost and risk of abuse outweigh the gains?

I would argue that, with certain exceptions, the answer is No.  What employers have generally found when providing fitness facilities to employees is that there's a maximum use level.  Exceptionally few people would 'abuse' a workplace gym, simply because most people don't have the endurance to spend too much time using the gym.  Would there be those who hide out at the gym as a way to avoid work?  Maybe some, but that would be pretty overt to bystanders, and such people probably aren't working at their desks anyways.  The average Wally doesn't need something like a gym, or a sleep pod, to avoid work.  Similarly, people can only eat so much free food.  Naps, for all but the overt abusers, will be limited propositions.

Bottom line:  Someone who would abuse the system will not be a 'good employee' just because you don't provide these perks open to abuse.

Indeed, the opposite may well be true in some cases.  If you give an employee ownership of his or her own productivity, the natural inclination is to rise to the challenge.  If I tell an employee exactly how and when to do his job, he will most likely do what he's told - no more, no less.  If the end quality of the work is inferior, that's my fault.  On the other hand, if I tell an employee that a project has to be completed by a particular date, and convey clear expectations on the quality of the work to be performed, then he will feel invested in the project, understanding that the end quality (and timeliness) of the work reflects on him.

There's a kneejerk reaction among some employers that employees will try to exploit them.  Give them an inch, they'll take a mile . This, by and large, is an unfair reaction.  Wally is a very rare phenomenon - most people derive a sense of self-value from their work, and they want to do worthwhile work.  Most people want to produce for their employers, and make their employers happy.

What about the cost?  The reality is that, from a cost perspective, some of these perks would not represent a significant increase to the cost of labour for many employers.  If you're supplying large numbers with simple foods, you can probably do it for something to the tune of ten bucks per person per meal, give or take.  If we're talking about one meal per day on average, then for an employee with a salary of $50,000, you've added about 5% to the cost of labour.  It's a pretty huge perk, considering that figure.  (Let's face it:  For your average Google software engineer, the percentage figure will be much lower.)  If employees are getting more meals, it will presumably be because they're working longer hours, and producing more.

It is practically difficult to offer such perks in many workplaces.  Where having bodies on the floor is the primary staffing goal, you can't necessarily afford freedom to go the gym, or nap in the sleep pod.  Likewise, for employers whose staffing is all minimum wage front-line employees, it will neither be cost efficient nor practically prudent.

For most employers, however, I would suggest that the kneejerk expectation of employee exploitation needs to be overcome, and that there's a real cost-benefit analysis to be applied.  Excellent employee relations need not be limited to the top-level high tech companies, and can be an asset in many workplaces.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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