A senior Google executive will start working remotely from New Zealand just as all other “Googlers” who want to keep working from home face a lengthy application process and a long wait before they get an answer, which might well be no. Some reportedly are outraged that the senior exec is free to relocate as he chooses, while they are not. It’s a sign that Google values treating employees fairly–but also lacks emotional intelligence in its dealings with those employees.
The drama began last month when Urs Hölzle, senior vice president, technical infrastructure, announced that he and his wife would relocate to New Zealand for at least a year to see if they liked living there. But, he added, “this won’t be a big adjustment.” New Zealand is three to five hours behind Pacific time, he explained, but since he’s an early riser, working on a Mountain View, California schedule would be no problem.
He didn’t even mention the bigger issue–Google’s longstanding philosophy that the best work happens at the office and not remotely. Though the company was quick to send people home at the beginning of the pandemic, it has now announced that the vast majority will be expected to return to the office at least three days a week beginning in September. It has also said that 20 percent will be allowed to work remotely full-time, but not which employees those will be. Instead, there’s a lengthy application any employee can use to request permission to work remotely, which will be reviewed by that employee’s “leads.” Google reportedly told employees they won’t get an answer on those applications until August at the earliest, CNET reports. It’s left many employees unable to make definite plans about where to live and how to organize their home lives even as Hölzle is packing for New Zealand.
Two unnamed Googlers told CNET that Hölzle’s announced move is an indication of the company’s hypocritical policies. According to CNET, “Both complained that the relocation represented a double standard in which different rules apply to executives in senior ranks.”
Consider that last sentence for a moment. I loved it so much, I had to read it three times. It made me think about my mother, who spent many years as the office manager at an advertising company with a market cap that’s a tiny fraction of Google’s. One day, one of the senior executives summoned her to his office to discuss a problem he wanted her to correct. His office had its own private bathroom and the janitor had made the error of leaving the toilet seat up after cleaning it. This was unacceptable, so Mom went and had a talk with the janitor to make sure it never happened again.
In most companies, it’s a no-brainer. Of course different rules apply to executives in senior ranks. Those special privileges are almost the whole point of working your way up the corporate ladder and can include things like use of the company jet to take your spouse to a football game, or a $40,000 bottle of wine. Google, meanwhile, is so committed to egalitarianism that employees feel entitled to complain when a senior executive gets a simple perk like working remotely, one they have a shot at themselves.
And Hölzle is not just any senior executive. He’s revered within the company. He oversees the servers and networks that host Google’s cloud, which is rapidly becoming the most profitable part of the business. He was among the company’s first ten employees, which means he is certainly wealthy enough that he most likely is a millionaire hundreds of times over and doesn’t have to work for Google or anyone else if he doesn’t feel like it. If any Google employee is going to get special treatment, Hölzle seems a likely candidate. Yet Google employees feel so empowered and expect such fair treatment that some still found it objectionable.
Did Hölzle change his mind?
The Google employees were particularly irked, CNET reports, because they said Hölzle had been adamantly opposed to remote work and would not allow it for anyone under his supervision. A Google spokesperson denied this to CNET, and said that some employees in Hölzle’s department will indeed be allowed to work remotely. But even if Hölzle did object to remote work back in the pre-pandemic world, it’s quite possible that the experience of the past year led him to change his mind, as it did for many other tech executives, notably Zillow founder Rich Barton.
In fact, there’s a bigger and much more logical reason for Google employees to be angry around the subject of remote work and I suspect it’s the real reason that they’re complaining. Google’s policy for full-time remote work, like many of its policies, depends on an individual employee’s managers to decide whether that employee will be among the 20 percent who are permitted to keep working from home. But first, the employee has to complete an application process, and he or she won’t get an answer until August at the earliest. That means most don’t know how the new policy will affect them, even though that policy may go into effect less than six weeks from now.
Google seems like a great place to work and this whole incident suggests it places high value on fairness. At the same time, the company should know that this uncertainty sucks for employees who want to keep working from home and have no way of knowing where they stand. One reportedly moved to the East Coast for a relationship and may now have to end that relationship if forced to return to the West Coast. Many more have to make decisions about leases and home purchases and children’s school enrollment, but don’t yet know where they’ll be living.
Leaving employees in the lurch this way is a very bad idea in a labor market where most can easily find other jobs, including remote ones. Apple has taken flak for its remote work policy that basically says no one gets to work from home more than two days a week. But at least that policy is clear, was announced well in advance, and gave employees an idea of what to expect. Google’s policy of having employees apply to work at home full time and then wait to hear the answer is more flexible and maybe even more fair, but it leaves too many questions unanswered for too many employees. If the company is smart it will answer those questions–soon.