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Laszlo Bock's 6 Tips for Building a Better Workplace

Laszlo Bock is well-known for his book Work Rules! (Twelve, 2015), but the former senior vice president of people operations at Google shared a different message in his keynote session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition: Work sucks.

Or at least it can. "Even people who have great jobs have terrible days, and not all of us have great jobs," he said. "I deeply believe we can fix that."

Bock, who grew Google's workforce from 6,000 to 76,000 between 2005 and 2016, has made it his mission to improve the world of work—and he believes HR is in a key position to help. "There's no profession better suited to this," said Bock, who is now founder and CEO of the learning company Humu. "What unites us and animates us is that we care."

He offered the following six tips for making workers happier and more productive, none of which require major investments beyond time and energy. "I want to dispel the myth that [a good] culture is about free food and beanbags and lava lamps and shuttle buses and even a lot of money," Bock said. So what can you do to make work better?

1. Give jobs meaning. 

Bock cited research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, who studied the impact of connecting people's jobs to a greater purpose. Grant found that at a call center where workers raised money for colleges, productivity increased by 40 percent when the employees were regularly visited by alumni who explained how receiving scholarships had transformed their lives.

Feeling a sense of purpose comes naturally for some people. "Across industries and job types, roughly a third of people find meaning in their jobs," Bock said. The trick is helping the rest of the workforce to feel similarly connected. "Find out why people are doing [their jobs] and what's meaningful to them."

2. Build trust. 

"If you believe people are fundamentally good, you're going to treat them that way," he said. And research indicates that trusting workers—in other words, showing you have faith in their innate goodness—greatly benefits companies, whether the workers are Harvard MBAs or high school graduates.  

"If you give people freedom, they will repay you by being more productive and effective," he said. "But most organizations are not structured like that." He noted that leaders typically don't share information freely or trust workers to figure out for themselves the best way to do their jobs. "You want to give people a little more freedom than you're comfortable with."

3. Hire people better than you. 

"The simplest rule is to only hire people who are better than you personally in some meaningful way," Bock said. But that's hard to do using traditional interviewing techniques. People tend to select candidates mainly because they can relate to them—perhaps based on a shared interest or background—and not because such individuals can actually do the job. "It's called confirmation bias, and we all have it."

To minimize this problem, Bock recommends assessing each candidate based on previously identified job attributes—and leaving the hiring manager out of the process entirely. "The best thing to do is to have a separate hiring committee," he said. "[It] should have nobody on it who will actually work with this person."

4. Pay "unfairly." 

Strong performers produce disproportionately higher dividends for employers than those in the middle of the pack. Or, as Bill Gates, whom Bock quoted, said, "A great software engineer is worth 10,000 times an average one." Yet most companies have a mere 20 percent difference in compensation between their average workers and their very best.

"The problem is that if you're good at your job, you get a couple big raises and then you flatline," Bock said. That's why he advocates implementing at least a 50 percent pay spread among employees. "It's going to feel wrong … but unless you do this your competitors are going to pick off your best people." That said, make sure you can clearly explain the compensation process to ensure that pay is not based on any factors other than performance, he said.   

5. Offer a nudge. 

In studying the workforce, Bock's team at Google found that new employees were taking an average of nine months to become fully productive. When they dug deeper, they discovered that the folks who got up to speed faster had a few things in common: They met more people, asked more questions and had fully functioning computers from the outset. So the team started sending e-mails to all new employees and their managers that stressed the importance of connecting with others and securing the right equipment.  

The result? "The average time to get productive went from nine months to six months, and all it cost was a couple of e-mails," Bock said. "If you give people these small interventions—these nudges, these checklists—it does make a difference."

6. Repeat. 

"This stuff is never done," Bock said. "You have to keep iterating and repeating and doing it again and again and again."

Putting in that continual effort is worth it because, at the end of the day, HR professionals—and all leaders—have only two options: "Every day when we show up we can fight and work and slog through our jobs and just survive like most of our workforces do," he said. "Or we can do something, anything, to make work get better—or at least suck less."


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