Future of Work Wednesdays: Google’s Evolving Hybrid Work Experiment

Britta Schellenberg
Britta Schellenberg
Published on 
4.20.2022

In this newsletter, we typically take a wide-lens look at the evolving landscape of hybrid work. This week, we’ll take a close look at one company as it moves forward. That company is tech giant Google. The Mountain View, California-based company has over 100,000 employees globally and is a “dream destination” for top tech talent. As of April 4, Google has asked its employees to come back into the office at least 3 days per week. 

Google Seeks to Offer Real Choice, Not “Sham Hybrid”

Google’s VP of Workspace, Javier Soltero, made it clear during a CNBC interview this month that Google is keenly aware of two big mistakes that companies make with hybrid work strategies:

  • Assuming that “one size fits all.” Instead of mandating a specific, rigid approach to hybrid work that ignores different employee needs, Soltero says companies should offer options and provide enabling technologies that allow employees to choose how and where they work best. “That means empowering employees with flexible hours and tools like apps that help them see schedule changes in real-time, connect faster with corporate headquarters and meet with customers over video,” Soltero says.
  • Failing to provide enabling technologies. Soltero believes that real employee choice is linked to digital tools that enable hybrid work. When a company offers hybrid work, but fails to provide the right tools, it’s offering “sham hybrid,” where the office is favored and digital work tools are ineffectual. Sham hybrid gives employees no real choice except to come into the office (or quit).

“Companies need to embrace technology and include clear instructions as to how it fits into their” hybrid work plans, says Soltero, so that words on paper (“flexibility,” “choice,” “hybrid,” etc.) match real-life employee experiences. Sham hybrid is also a killer of organizational trust.

Google’s CEO: The Office Must Have a Purpose

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, made it clear that Google wants employees to return to the office at least some of the time, but that the Google office must have a clear purpose/intention, instead of being the default workspace:

“The future of work will be flexible,” says Pichai. “We do think it's important to get people in [the office] a few days a week, but we are embracing all options. A set of our workforce will be fully remote, but most of our workforce will be coming in three days a week. But I think we can be more purposeful about the time they're in, making sure group meetings or collaboration, creative collaborative brainstorming or community building, happens then.”

So if you ask employees to come into the office, it had better be with a specific intention in mind. “We’ve spent a lot of money on our fancy furniture and we need to justify the capital expenditure” won’t work. Having your team commute in so they can occupy furniture is a terrible employee experience. Pichai’s approach to hybrid work and “the office with a purpose” has become Google’s official hybrid work strategy as of this month. 

Google’s Next Steps: Walking the Hybrid Talk

While the leadership team at Google is saying the right things about hybrid work and making the right investments in digital workspace options, they need to match their words to their actions. A number of Google employees have pushed back (as briefly described in our last FoWW blog), saying that Google’s new “three days in-office” policy favors the preferences of Google management over Google employees. 

Like leadership teams across the globe, Google’s leadership is playing a tricky balancing act. The danger for corporate leadership is providing a “sham hybrid” workplace that erodes trust and creates employee churn, where employees are compelled back into the office due to ineffective technology or corporate mandates that restrict employee choice.

Potential Pushback at Google (and Elsewhere)

What happens when Google employees push back? So far, Google has been making it relatively easy for employees to seek exemptions to its new hybrid work plan, in an effort to avoid showdowns. Nobody knows if Google will harden its stance and find ways to “push” employees back into the office.

Hybrid work has its own challenges for employees, as a recent Washington Post article, Hybrid Work for many is messy and exhausting, made clear: “a hybrid schedule sometimes means going to the office and discovering you’re the only one there. Workers who can choose their in-office days say they often have to coordinate with other colleagues to ensure they’re all in at the same time. But for those with assigned in-office days or whose job doesn’t require collaboration, the requirement to go to work can feel forced and unnecessary.”

Companies, even attractive talent magnets like Google, need to be careful about maintaining employee trust. If Google pushes too hard, it risks losing its talent or disengaging it. 

We’re all involved in a massive hybrid work experiment right now, and there’s no playbook available. My hope is that examining Google has provided some insight into where we are right now and where we might be going next.