The science of happiness at work

By Martin Vogel

Google canteen
An enticing display at the Google canteen

Compare and contrast.

At Google, social science researchers have been engaged to advise on the optimal conditions in staff canteens:

“Researchers found that the ideal lunch line should be about three or four minutes long—that’s short enough that people don’t waste time but long enough that they can meet new people. The tables should be long, so workers who don’t know each other are forced to chat. And, after running an experiment, Google found that stocking cafeterias with 8-inch plates alongside 12-inch plates encouraged people to eat smaller, healthier portions.”

Meanwhile, at the recently completed corporate headquarters of a large media organisation, staff complain that their catering facilities are not fit for purpose:

“One member of staff, who asked not to be named, said: ‘I ended up queuing for 20 minutes the other day for a plate of cold chips and a bit of cod that had seen better days… You end up wasting half your lunch hour waiting for something which is barely edible.’

“Another said: ‘In the hour I had for lunch I spent 15 minutes waiting for what was meant to be a curry, then eight minutes waiting to get into a lift and by the time I got back to my desk the curry was cold.  I took one forkful and put it in the bin – that’s £4 I’ll never see again.’

“More than 6,000 BBC workers moved to the new 11-storey headquarters last year.  A spokeswoman for the BBC said: ‘This is a massive project which involves moving over 6,000 staff and thousands of hours of live programmes into a new building with new technology.  It will take time for some staff to settle into their new base but we value their feedback as they continue to move in and we have continued to make changes where appropriate.’”

Allowing for the teething problems of thousands of employees moving into a new building, the saddest contrast is the lack of aspiration revealed in the second example – including the telling assumption that lunch is eaten at one’s desk.  Google explicitly nurtures the canteen as a stage for social interaction.

An interesting article in Slate describes how Google is pioneering – as befits an engineering culture – a data-driven approach to understanding the best ways to motivate its people. Its renowned staff canteens are the least of it.

It has transformed retention of female staff by extending paid maternity leave.  This is at no cost, since the company saves on recruitment spending.

Google has also discovered (or should that be confirmed?) that good managers get better performance from their teams than poor managers. It’s using coaches to support less successful managers – who go on to achieve sustained improvements in their feedback scores.

As with John Lewis, Google is succeeding by mining the correlation between the corporate interest and happy staff.

Image courtesy Yukino Miyazawa.