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All Tech Considered
5:44 pm
Wed March 13, 2013

'Serendipitous Interaction' Key To Tech Firms' Workplace Design

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to end full-time work-from-home arrangements at her company, a cultural firestorm ignited. But it was just the latest step in Mayer's effort to transform Yahoo's culture.

When the company was founded in the 1990s, it was one of the most exciting places to work in Silicon Valley. Those days are over; Yahoo has fallen woefully behind in the talent wars and now is trying to catch up.

When you walk through Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus during lunchtime, it can feel a little bit like you're taking a college tour on a pleasant day.

There are folks playing beach volleyball in a sand pit outside the cafeteria. There are soccer games across the street — even a pick-up Frisbee game.

And while the free food inside the cafeteria is a lot nicer than the fare at most universities, the tables might take you back. Actually, the tables' length and design look like those in high school cafeterias.

"Why? Because when you put them back-to-back, people walk down between the chairs, they bump into each other — it's actually called a 'Google bump' — and you go, 'Hey!' and you sit down and talk," says John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University and workplace consultant.

He says none of this is by accident; it's called "serendipitous interaction" and it's all by design.

Google has spent a lot of time studying what makes workplaces innovative and casual interactions are important. Sullivan lists three factors to make that set companies apart: learning by interaction, collaborations and fun. "Most people just don't get that," he says.

The volleyball and Frisbee — even the length of the lines inside the cafeteria — are designed to make sure Google employees talk to others they don't necessarily work with.

Sullivan says they even measure the length of the cafeteria line. "Why? Because if there is no line you won't talk to anyone, you won't interact," he says.

By most accounts, this approach has been phenomenally successful. Google is ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place to work in the country. It attracts some of the brightest minds and earns close to $1 million in revenue for every single person it employs.

So Sullivan says it's no surprise Google's data-driven approach to managing its workplace has attracted imitators, including Facebook.

"Google and Facebook are metrics machines," he says. "So if you ask them what's the average time for a promotion, what's the percentage of women being promoted, they have it to a dime."

Facebook has a slightly different feel than Google. It celebrates hackers and pushes employees to "move fast and break things."

It poaches engineers from places like Google by promising them the chance to push code to the site on their first week and letting them pick new jobs for themselves just after a few months.

"When you start to see the best people migrating from one company to the next, it means then, that next wave is starting," Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, told an overflow crowd at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

"I believe that really strong companies all have very strong cultures," she said.

Facebook emphasizes freedom and so does Google, but both companies keep employees talking to each other. And it's no accident that when Facebook was looking for a chief operating officer it hired a former Google employee, Sheryl Sandberg.

Or last year, when Yahoo went searching for new a CEO, it took a similar tact.

"Fundamentally, technology companies live and die by talent," Mayer said.

For years, talent has been flowing out of Yahoo, not into it. Mayer is trying to turn that around with free food and phones. She's also personally reviewing most recruiting decisions.

"Part of that was because I wanted to make sure that Yahoo was absolutely the best place to work and that people really wanted to come and work there," she said.

While Yahoo has been slammed for what many saw as a tin-eared condemnation of telecommuting, some within the company argue that it's now infamous memo was really just part of a larger effort to energize Yahoo's culture and competitive spirit.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When Yahoo!'s CEO Marissa Mayer announced that employees could no longer work full time work from home, it created a cultural firestorm. But it was just the latest step in Mayer's efforts to transform Yahoo!'s culture. When the company was founded in the 1990s, it was one of the most exciting places to work in Silicon Valley. But those days are over.

As NPR's Steve Henn reports, Yahoo! has fallen woefully behind in the talent wars and is trying to catch up.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: When you walk through Google's Mountain View campus during lunch time, it can feel a little bit like you're taking a college tour on a really nice day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, I...

HENN: There are folks playing beach volleyball in a sand pit outside the cafeteria. There are soccer games across the street, even pickup ultimate Frisbee.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Woo-hoo.

HENN: And while the free food inside the cafeteria is a lot nicer than the fare at most universities, the tables might take you back.

JOHN SULLIVAN: The length and the design, they're like cafeteria-style tables in high school. Why? Because when you put them back to back, people walk down between the chairs, they bump into each other - it's actually called the Google bump - and you go, hey, and then you sit down and talk.

HENN: John Sullivan is a management professor at San Francisco State University and a workplace consultant. He says none of this is an accident.

SULLIVAN: It's called serendipitous interaction.

HENN: And it's all by design. Google has spent a lot of time studying what makes workplaces innovative, and casual interactions are important.

SULLIVAN: It turns out there's three factors. One is learning - rapid learning - not in a classroom but yourself. So you learn by interaction. Second, it's collaborations, and then third is fun. So most people just don't get that.

HENN: The volleyball and Frisbee, even the length of the lines inside the cafeteria are designed to make sure Googlers talk to people they don't necessarily work with.

SULLIVAN: If you go to the dining room, they measure the length of the line to get your food.

HENN: The optimum length: three to four minutes.

SULLIVAN: Why? Because if there's no line, you won't talk to anyone, you won't interact. So - and if you - the line's too long, you'll walk away.

HENN: By most accounts, this approach has been phenomenally successful. Google is ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place to work in country. It attracts some of the brightest minds in the world and earns close to a million dollars in revenue for every single person it employs. So Sullivan says it's no surprise Google's data-driven approach to managing its workplace has attracted imitators, chief among them is Facebook.

SULLIVAN: Google and Facebook are metrics machines. So - if you ask them what's the average time for promotion, what's their percentage of women that get promoted, they have it to a dime.

HENN: Now, Facebook has a slightly different feel than Google. It celebrates hackers and pushes employees to, quote, "move fast and break things." It poaches engineers from places like Google by promising them a chance to push code to the site on their very first week, and then letting them pick new jobs for themselves after just a few months.

MARISSA MAYER: When you start to see the best people migrating from one company to the next, it means then that the next wave is starting.

HENN: Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!'s CEO, would love to start a new wave. She spoke to an overflow crowd at Davos this year.

MAYER: I believe that really strong companies all have really strong cultures.

HENN: Facebook emphasizes freedom, Google data, but both companies try to keep employees talking to each other and on campus. So it's no accident that when Facebook was looking for a chief operating officer, it hired a former Googler, Sheryl Sandberg, or that last year, when Yahoo! was searching for another new CEO, it took a similar tact.

MAYER: Fundamentally, technology companies live and die by talent.

HENN: For years, talent has been flowing out of Yahoo!, not into it. Mayer's trying to turn that around with free food and phones. And she's personally reviewing most recruiting decisions.

MAYER: Part of that was because I wanted to make sure that Yahoo! was absolutely the best place to work and the people really want to come and work there.

HENN: While Yahoo! has been slammed for what many saw as a tin-eared condemnation of telecommuting, some within the company argue that its now infamous memo was really just part of a larger effort to energize Yahoo!'s culture and its competitive spirit. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.