Google’s huge work/life balance experiment

By Adam Tinworth

31/07/2014 | Work/life balance is the bane of many businesses, hitting family life and driving up people's stress levels, while, in theory, boosting productivity. It's a particular problem in the startup culture, where there's an almost obsessive focus on working longer, faster and harder.

But it run counter to pretty much all research and neuroscience, which suggests that knowledge work can only be done in short bursts, because our brain is such a resource-hungry organ.

Google has started a (very) long term study into the productivity of its staff, and, in particular, of the effects of helping them disconnect when they need to. The project – gDNA – is explored at some length in a Harvard Business Review blog post. Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, explains the genesis of the gDNA project:

Since we know that the way each employee experiences work is determined by innate characteristics (nature) and his or her surroundings (nurture), the gDNA survey collects information about both. Here’s how it works: a randomly selected and representative group of over 4,000 Googlers completes two in-depth surveys each year. The survey itself is built on scientifically validated questions and measurement scales. We ask about traits that are static, like personality; characteristics that change, like attitudes about culture, work projects, and co-workers; and how Googlers fit into the web of relationships around all of us. We then consider how all these factors interact, as well as with biographical characteristics like tenure, role and performance. Critically, participation is optional and confidential.

Google's Dublin Disconnectors

Dublin atrium

As I mentioned, it's designed to be a long-term study - a century in fact (will Google last that long?) - but some interesting, practical things are emerging already:

Our Dublin office, for example, ran a program called “Dublin Goes Dark” which asked people to drop off their devices at the front desk before going home for the night. Googlers reported blissful, stressless evenings. Similarly, nudging Segmentors to ignore off-hour emails and use all their vacation days might improve well-being over time. The long-term nature of these questions suggests that the real value of gDNA will take years to realize.

It's a fascinating, and data-driven approach to refuting the aggressive long-hours culture so prevalent in tech. It will be well worth watching.