David Kerr: Would you rather work for Google or the NHS?

David KerrWould you rather work for Google or the NHS? Started in 1996 in a Stanford University student room by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the plan was originally to call the newly created search engine, BackRub. Since then Google has become one of the top 10 companies in the world (number 4 at the moment) and a ubiquitous feature of modern life. In terms of the frequency that the company’s internet site is used, the numbers are mindboggling. Following more than $8 billion dollars in acquisitions over recent years, Google is no longer simply a search engine. At the moment the only real competition Google has seems to be from Facebook. Why has Google become so successful?

Apart from the technology and savvy financial investment, one of the reasons behind the runaway success for a company like Google has been the approach taken towards its employees. Visitors to Google headquarters (known as Googleplex in Googlespeak) appear to be impressed by the vibrancy and ambience of the environment and it is now not uncommon to be asked by tourists the directions the Mountain View site. According to Fortune magazine, new employees (or Nooglers in Google parlance) report working for the company is like being at “the brainiest university imaginable.” Similar to most of the rest of Silicon Valley, the dress code of jeans, tee shirts and sneakers are most definitely de rigeur.  The facilities at Google would compete with many exclusive leisure resorts with gyms, swimming pools, climbing walls, yoga and dance classes, videogames, pool tables, pianos and even opportunities to play beach volleyball being available. Dogs can be taken to work and bicycles and scooters are a readily available option for travelling between meetings. Googlers can even get together for film evenings, wines tastings, or salsa classes. The food is of very high quality and is free. However being California where exercise is almost a religion, weight gain is usually transient. Presumably the financial rewards for being a Google employee are also an important attraction?

How does working for Google compare with working for the NHS? In the latest survey published by the UK Care Quality Commission NHS staff report “record high” levels of job satisfaction with an overall score of 3.5 out 5. In the survey, 64% of staff were happy with the standard of care provided by their hospital although on the down side only 41% reported having a good opportunity to develop their own work and 28% said they would be looking for a new job in the next 12 months. 15% said they had been subjected to bullying, harassment, and abuse. Recently there have been concerns expressed about rates of obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise amongst NHS staff, with rates of sickness with absenteeism much greater than in the private sector.

The approach Google has to its workforce is not based on altruism. The company recognises that enhancing the workplace experience results in better performance and outcomes for the organisation. In simple terms, people will stay and work longer. Google is certainly at one end of the spectrum when it comes to planning a work environment. According to critics, the approach the company has taken has created a “Stepford wives” mentality amongst the workforce. Fortune magazine reported recently that Googlers see themselves as “the most interesting people on the planet. Ask one of them what they doing, the response often is organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

Despite some criticism, Google continues to do well on a variety of measures and most people genuinely seem to enjoy working for the company. Perhaps a clue can be found in the “ten things we know to be true” section of the Google Website. For the NHS some of these might also be relevant

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow
  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well
  • You can be serious without a suit
  • Great just isn’t good enough and (famously)
  • You can make money without doing evil.

Meanwhile the Royal College of Nursing has announced that hundreds of its members are set to join public sector workers at a rally in London to demonstrate their opposition to cuts that they say threaten both jobs and patient care across the NHS. The weather is also better (usually) in California.

David Kerr is the managing editor of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.