Google CEO Responds to Employee Concerns Over Loss of Franchise and Honesty

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Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai gestures during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 22, 2020.

COFFRINI FABRIC | AFP | Getty Images

Google employees are pressuring executives to bring back part of the corporate culture that in the past made it a desirable place to work: franchising.

At a year-end plenary meeting, held virtually earlier this month, CEO Sundar Pichai read aloud one of the most popular employee questions, based on the company’s internal system. called Dory, which allows staff members to post questions and vote on the ones they want addressed.

“It seems the responses to Dory are more and more like lawyers with pre-established phrases or platitudes, who seem to ignore the questions being asked,” Pichai said as she read Dory’s post. “Do we plan to bring the frankness, honesty, humility and frankness back to Dory’s responses or continue down a bureaucratic path?” “

The question received 673 positive votes. CNBC got a copy of the question and heard the audio from Pichai.

“I understand the sentiment behind the question,” Pichai said, at the start of his lengthy response. “I think there are several reasons for this,” he added later.

Google’s cultural upheaval has been a major topic in recent years, as the company that once uprooted Silicon Valley standards with an open and joyful office atmosphere and open discussions takes into account the current realities that come with having to. to be one of the biggest companies in the world. The uplifting sentiment changed and confidence waned after employees learned that company executives had ignored allegations of sexual harassment and quietly made deals with the government.

Google management then clamped down on internal talks and fired some employees who were critical of company policies and were involved in organizing other disgruntled workers. Employees told CNBC in 2019 the company was becoming “unrecognizable.”

In his response at the recent meeting, Pichai acknowledged the challenges of communicating with a global workforce during a pandemic.

“We are obviously communicating on a large scale now – to over 150,000 people and especially during the pandemic, doing it all remotely,” Pichai said. “I noticed more people were reading off screens during the pandemic and so I think that’s part of what made the responses feel canned.”

Google, like most companies, is wondering how to stay in touch with its employees, most of whom have been forced to work remotely since March 2020. Google has been more aggressive than much of the tech industry in its goals. to reopen physical offices in the New Year, although it recently pushed back its return date amid recent growing cases of the omicron variant.

The TGIF meetings at all levels of Google, where Pichai and other executives address Dory’s areas of concern, have also changed dramatically. They are now all being held on video.

Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin started TGIF in 1999 at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., Campus as a forum for employees to regularly voice their frustrations and discuss matters openly with management. It became a selling point for talent and a role model for many tech start-ups that followed.

In 2019, Pichai announced that he was replacing weekly TGIF meetings with monthly meetings and smaller town halls to discuss workplace issues.

Virtual meetings add a whole new wrinkle, said Pichai.

“I think people are always nervous to respond in this context,” he said. “Sometimes I think people don’t forgive small mistakes. I think people realize that responses can be coded anywhere including outside of the company. I think it makes people very careful. “

Pichai went on to say that “trust and openness have to go both ways”, referring to the leaks made by employees to people outside the company.

“You have to work really hard to keep it on a large scale,” he said.

Pichai said that over the past two years, the company has tried to organize itself around smaller groups, which may be better for authentic communication.

“I think it has been very important to invest in smaller forums,” he said.

He concluded his response by expressing his appreciation for the concern and calling it “welcome back”.

“I’m glad you asked the question,” Pichai said. “I encourage all speakers to speak up and to say what they think.” He added: “Let’s all try to do better there.”

A Google spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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