BACK IN MAY I mentioned that Google would bear watching, because it seemed like they might be losing some of what made them special as a company.  So it was interesting that I ran across a Quartz article which discussed the death of Google’s “20% time” policy.

You may not be aware of this, but it was a HUGE DEAL in the high tech industry.  It was astounding that a company would give every employee 20% of their work time to pursue unrelated opportunities.

When I started at HP back in 1978, there were some philosophies which were similar to this, including the concept of the “G-job” as a sanctioned means of working on unassigned projects.

But 20% of your time, a full day every week?  That’s outrageous!

the-curious-case-of-creativity_articles_smIt seems that Google has gradually made this benefit disappear.  But I’m not going to talk today about why that was such a great concept.  Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

Let’s talk instead about how one takes away a benefit or other important element of the employee’s experience.  It could be as simple as replacing office walls with cubicles.

Believe me, employees will NEVER forget that change.  Honest.  I’ve talked with some who are still bitter about this particular shift even though it happened 25 years ago.

A guiding principle, then, is that just because you can justify it and it seems minor, doesn’t mean it’s minor to your employees.  You gave away free coffee, and replaced that with a machine that charges a buck?  Sure, the quality may have improved.  The convenience is great.  You’re covering a cost that employees never realized the size of.

But that cup of coffee potentially annoys each and every employee, every day.  It’s a signal that “they don’t care about us anymore,” which then heightens peoples’ awareness that the cleaning schedule changed, that meetings “don’t seem to be as much fun as they used to be,” and the parking lot was repainted.  It seems like every little random thing now becomes a part of this image of the Uncaring Corporate Bosses.

Yes, it’s really unfair and even illogical.

How can you implement change so that it doesn’t set people off like this?  First, you really ask YOURSELF if it’s necessary.  Yes, that free coffee was a pain, but really – how much did it cost?  How does that compare to having employees take your status down a couple of notches?

Second, get some people involved in the analysis and decision making.  Be honest that the thing which set you off was that day when the coffee pot was left on and almost started a fire.  Show people what the real cost is.  But then stand back and let people continue the debate and work towards a resolution.  They may discover that they didn’t like the quality either, or that most people prefer cappucino these days.  Maybe someone will be inspired to do a fund-raiser for a fancy high-quality machine, rather than the industrial box you were going to throw in there.  Maybe they’ll be glad to pay two bucks a cup just because it’s a fun machine and they were involved in picking it out.

I find that another important principle of effective change is to get people involved.  Not necessarily everyone, but a group who cares and is likely to be respected by their peers.  If they recommend putting a change in place, they’ll also be working one-on-one with people to explain why it was a good change.  Much more effectively than you can do just by yourself.

In my career, I’ve seen both good and bad examples of change.  When I joined HP, they had free donuts every day.  We got into a crunch time, and that shifted to donuts every Friday.  Then a year later they were just eliminated entirely.

It was probably a good trend, health-wise.  But that’s not the point.

When we had a straightforward explanation of the cause – the lousy economy – people adjusted quickly.  But later when a smaller change was made without any explanation, people groused for years.  Heck, you’ll still hear it mentioned thirty years later.

Which route did Google take with the elimination of the “20% benefit”?  I don’t know.  And it may have happened differently in various parts of the organization.  It’s even possible that it was less traumatic inside the company than what folks outside are saying – because for those of us outside the company, this is a sudden and unexplained shift.

For us, it’s just part of that image of Google becoming too much like every other large corporation, not caring about its employees.

I hope that’s not true, because we need more good and innovative companies.