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How can the application of daniel pink's motivation theory help Google boost its employee engagement in a post-covid era?

Table of Content

Introduction

Originally named Backrub, Google LLC is an American multinational search engine company headquartered in Mountain View, California, that started development in 1996 by former Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The company was officially incorporated on September 4, 1998, and soon began receiving various funding from business angels and venture capitalists that enabled its rapid and staggering growth.

 

Although Google’s primary source of income is advertising that comes from its role as a search engine, the company has strived to diversify its portfolio in the technology industry, and as for today, “offers more than 50 Internet services and products".

 

Throughout its history, Google has been constantly praised for its unusual yet efficient motivation techniques that were linked to its astoundingly high employee engagement and productivity. However, the unexpected worldwide pandemic Covid - 19 changed the way work is done. Suddenly, lockdowns and curfews were the norm, and companies needed to therefore adopt a remote working system. Companies all over the world faced inevitable struggles to maintain their workers motivated and engaged in that new normal.

 

Nowadays, after more than two years have passed from the start of the pandemic, most countries have already decided to lift restrictions enforced during the Covid era. Nevertheless, most companies are still struggling to devise strategies to boost employee engagement and motivation in this post-Covid era, as work practices and procedures significantly changed.

 

The aim of this investigation is to answer the question “How can the application of Daniel Pink's motivation theory help Google boost its employee engagement in a post - Covid era? ” This research question is worthy of investigation since it is pivotal for Google to determine what aspects can influence its employee engagement the most in the future so as to take action in the short-to medium-term. Furthermore, it will enable Google to reflect on which aspects or features were essential to keep employees engaged before the pandemic, and thus analyze which should be preserved, slightly adapted, or totally changed in the near future to maximize employee engagement post - Covid.

Methodology

The information used to address the research question comes from a vast variety of secondary sources that enable a holistic interpretation of data and consider several perspectives so that bias does not hinder the reliability of this research. A core secondary source I utilized is Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which he explains his theory of human motivation and provides strategies business managers can implement to boost employee engagement and motivation at their companies.

 

Moreover, several articles, journals, company reports, and case studies were used when conducting my research. For instance, I used academic publications from Harvard Business Review, different media articles from well-known newspapers like CNN, and even Google’s internal blog The Keyword to consider a variety of perspectives that, all together, will enable an inclusive interpretation and discussion of the results.

Theory Used

Most of the theory used in this essay is directly related to the topic of human resources. First, I will explain Daniel Pink’s motivation theory and synthesize it into four core strategies he argues have a significant impact on employee motivation. This will provide a thorough understanding of Pink’s theory as applied to a business environment, and serve as a guideline for the later evaluation of employee engagement at Google.

 

I will then examine Google prior to Covid by analyzing the impact central features of the company, such as its organizational structure and leadership style, used to have on employee engagement. This, in conjunction with Pink’s theory, will enable me to assess Google’s employee engagement before Covid, which will then serve as a benchmark for the later analysis of the company post - Covid.

 

Then, to assess Covid’s impact on employee engagement, I will determine the changes that emerged in Google’s internal and external environment. A PEST Analysis will be applied to determine a wide variety of post-Covid changes in the external environment that might impact Google’s employee engagement in the future. Changes in Google’s internal environment, on the other hand, will be determined by exploring how some of its central internal features, such as corporate culture, might change post - Covid.

 

Ultimately, the extent to which these changes might affect Google’s future employee engagement will be determined by referring back to Pink’s theory and prior-to-Covid Google. I will first assess the impact these changes might have on employee engagement post - Covid by closely considering how they might affect the extent to which Google meets Pink’s synthesized core strategies. Then, I will answer the research question by comparing this to prior-to-Covid Google to analyze which previous aspects of the company should be maintained, slightly adapted, or changed completely to boost employee engagement in the future.

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  • Daniel Pink’s Motivation Theory

    In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink indicates that modern-day companies require critical thinking and innovation to thrive, as present-day work is becoming, each time, more heuristic and less algorithmic.

     

    Pink argues that the conventional punishment-reward system has a detrimental effect on employee motivation, and especially on that of employees who perform heuristic tasks. Pink explains that this happens since this motivation system is exclusively based on extrinsic rewards, which might therefore hamper creativity, induce unethical behavior, narrow employees’ focus on tasks, and undermine intrinsic motivation.

     

    Instead, Pink suggests that employers should focus on reducing the negative effects extrinsic factors may have on employee engagement while trying to maximize intrinsic motivation.

     

    To apply Daniel Pink’s motivation theory in this investigation, I have decided to synthesize Pink’s proposals into four core strategies. Thus, when later evaluating the extent to which Google’s employees are engaged, I will assess the degree to which Google meets the following core strategies.

     

    Businesses should ensure money and other financial factors are not a concern for employees

    Pink refers to money as a threshold motivator. He argues that not paying employees well enough can cause demotivation and poor performance, but once employees perceive their payment is fair, paying them more will not boost productivity — in fact, it could even diminish intrinsic motivation.

     

    Pink hence suggests that businesses should pay employees above-average salaries that are commensurate with their colleagues’ to ensure employees perceive their remuneration as fair. Moreover, Pink discourages companies from utilizing contingent rewards, as they can create a toxic competitive environment and increase the importance employees give to financial factors.

     

    Businesses should give employees as much autonomy as possible

    Daniel Pink argues that employees should have as much autonomy as possible over what he calls the 4 T’s - “task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with), and technique (how they do it)”.

     

    Businesses should encourage employees to achieve mastery

    Pink defines mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters”. Therefore, when he refers to achieving mastery, he refers to reaching a mental state where one constantly longs for an unattainable prowess at a certain activity that is relevant for one.

     

    Pink indicates that to achieve mastery at a certain activity, this activity must be self-fulfilling and challenging enough to be engaging. Pink therefore recommends employers to assign tasks that are neither too challenging nor too simple, while continually making these tasks more gratifying through techniques like job enlargement and job enrichment.

     

    Moreover, Pink emphasizes the relevance regular and genuine feedback has in the achievement of mastery, as it enables employees to track their performance. Pink therefore indicates that businesses should also pursue innovative ways to provide constant and authentic feedback, such as fostering self-appraisal or encouraging colleagues to deliver feedback.

     

    Businesses should maximize purpose in all settings

    Pink argues that humans, by nature, have the constant desire to “make a contribution and be part of a cause greater and more enduring than themselves”. Pink hence indicates that employees want to feel they are an integral part in a company that has a relevant purpose and constantly endeavors to improve society.

     

    Moreover, Pink states that this purpose motive expresses itself in modern-day companies in three main ways: “in goals that use profit to reach purpose; in words that emphasize more than self-interest; and in policies that allow people to pursue purpose on their own terms.”

     

    Therefore, Pink suggests that organizations should constantly remind employees about corporate goals that pursue purpose-maximization, enhance employees’ sense of belonging, and incorporate policies that enlist autonomy while strengthening purpose.

    Employee Engagement

    The concept of employee engagement was first introduced by Dr. William Kahn in a 1990 article. He argued that individuals can be involved in their work in three main dimensions: physical, cognitive, and emotional. Hence, he believed that efforts should be made to engage people across all three dimensions to boost their security, morale, and connection with their company.

     

    Since then, the concept of employee engagement has been constantly evolving and gaining popularity in the business world, and nowadays is considered a pivotal factor for a company’s success. Tim Smith defines it as “the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward their job”.7 He argues that engaged employees “often display a greater commitment to a company's values and goals” and are more likely to develop a rational and an emotional connection with their company.

     

    The concept of employee engagement is relevant for this investigation, as Daniel Pink’s motivation theory endeavors to maximize employee commitment and connection with the company, in addition to promoting the alignment between employees and organizational goals. Thus, the application of Pink’s theory specifically ties back to the concept of employee engagement and will, therefore, enable a thorough evaluation and assessment of Google’s employee engagement prior and post-Covid.

    Google Prior to Covid

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  • Extrinsic Motivators

    Prior - to - Covid Google’s approach to extrinsic motivation can be noted in the fact that the company was constantly referred to as “one of Silicon Valley’s highest-paying companies”. For instance, as of 2018, the median compensation at Alphabet, the conglomerate of which Google is a subsidiary, laid way beyond that offered at other tech companies like Tesla, Intel, and IBM.

     

    Moreover, this can also be observed in Google’s distinctive and unconventional perks, such as first-class medical insurance, on-site meals and snacks, 1-on-1 financial coaching, and even a “googler-to-googler peer learning and coaching platform”. Furthermore, after a good performance, instead of using contingent rewards to motivate employees (which normally “resulted in jealousy and resentment”), Google rewards employees with experiences that are personal and nonfinancial, such as dinners and international travel, thus boosting employee morale and satisfaction while impeding financial factors play a crucial role in engaging employees.

    Organizational Structure

    Google’s organizational structure is an amalgamation of a function-based, product-based, matrix, and cross-functional organizational structure, as employees are assembled in highly collaborative teams responsible for a specific corporate function or product development. Furthermore, as noted by Gennaro Cuofano, Google’s substantial degree of flatness and “decreased prevalence of middle managers” encourages employees to take an active role in decision-making and enables them to communicate directly with upper management.

    Figure 1 - Cross - Functional Organizational Structure

    Figure 1 is an example of a cross-functional organizational structure that resembles Google’s approach to forming teams. For instance, it can be noted that teams are composed of employees from diverse departments who work towards a common goal. Moreover, team managers have a wide span of control, which suggests delegation is encouraged and more likely to occur. All these aspects are particular to Google’s organizational structure, as it consists of few levels of hierarchy, a short and diffuse chain of command, and decentralized decision-making that reflect on its flexible and inclusive corporate culture that values employee insight and feedback.

    Leadership Style

    Google managers use a distributed leadership style that disperses decision-making and enhances autonomy to constantly empower and captivate the staff. For instance, “employees participate in the decision-making process by holding insightful discussions and brainstorming before making important company decisions”.

     

    Additionally, Google utilizes several laissez-faire and democratic policies to engage its employees at work. For example, employees are allowed to change teams through an informal internal process if they request it. Furthermore, this can also be observed in the “70-20-10 rule” which indicates that employees should allocate 70% of their time “improving current products and services”, 20% exploring adjacent markets and capabilities, and 10% developing breakthroughs that do not exist yet. Thus, Google uses job enrichment, job enlargement, and empowerment to achieve intrinsic motivation, as noted by the fact that employees are allowed to autonomously work on diverse challenging tasks.

     

    Moreover, Google’s goal-setting system, where teams and individuals are allowed to set their own OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and contribute to setting corporate OKRs, further illustrates the company’s constant aim to empower employees. OKRs consist in setting frequent ambitious goals and determining specific ways to measure employees’ achievement on these. Indeed, Google indicates that OKRs should be ambitious to the extent that individuals and teams are only able to achieve 60 to 70% of them, which engages employees with challenging tasks they can achieve to a large – yet certain – extent, and enables them to receive regular self-feedback by assessing the extent to which they achieved their goals. Furthermore, it conveys a perception of a low power distance and that contributions are highly valued, which enhances employees’ sense of belonging and aligns them with the company’s mission.

    Corporate Culture

    Google’s corporate culture is one that values flexibility, independent thinking, and innovation. For instance, the company constantly “emphasizes the importance of openness among employees” and allows both customers and employees to freely contribute with their ideas and opinions.

     

    Furthermore, the organization fosters “a culture of learning and knowledge sharing” that enhances collaboration and employees’ sense of belonging. For example, more than 6000 employees participate in the company’s ‘Googler-to-Googler’ teaching network, where volunteers help their colleagues by “teaching professional skills, providing 1:1 mentorship, and preparing learning material.”

     

    Additionally, the short gap between Google’s espoused values and enacted values show that employees are aligned with corporate strategy, leadership, and organizational design, which HBR article The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture deems as three pivotal internal factors when assessing a culture’s strategic effectiveness. For instance, this can be observed by the fact that employees support and embrace Google’s advocacy of different Corporate Social Responsibilities and ethical practices, as observed in the firm’s project “Google Green” that ensures the company develops renewable resources of power.

     

    Furthermore, this alignment is reinforced by the company’s people-oriented and team-oriented culture that promotes “fairness and respect among individual rights”. Thus, Google hinders possible culture clashes and ensures its employees feel valued at work and easily adapt to the corporate culture.

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  • Assessing Employee Engagement

    By applying Daniel Pink’s motivation theory to prior - to - Covid Google, one can note that employees are highly engaged at work since the company thoroughly meets Pink’s four core strategies. For instance, Google’s extrinsic motivators, such as above-average salaries and unique perks, as well as the avoidance of contingent rewards, ensure that employees perceive their financial rewards as fair and diminish their concern about financial factors.

     

    Additionally, as observed by the company’s distributed leadership style, cross-functional organizational structure, flexible corporate culture, and laissez-faire and democratic policies, Google employees have a plethora of autonomy over what Daniel Pink calls the 4 T’s (task, time, team, and technique). Furthermore, the company constantly encourages its employees to achieve mastery, as noted in the company’s goal-setting system (OKRs) whereby employees set themselves challenging, ambitious, and gratifying objectives that foster a constant desire to enhance one’s professional skills and competencies. Moreover, the fact that regular and genuine feedback, such as cross-functional or self-feedback (by tracking performance for a certain OKR), is provided to employees further assists them to achieve mastery.

     

    Ultimately, the strong sense of belonging at the workplace and the clear alignment between employees and corporate objectives, as observed in the short gap between Google’s espoused and enacted values, as well as in the fact that employees are encouraged to provide insight when setting team and corporate goals, enhance employee perception that their contributions are valued and relevant to work towards the company’s mission, which show that the purpose motive of Google’s personnel is recurrently maximized.

    Post - Covid Google

    Changes in the External Environment

    To determine and evaluate the changes in Google’s external environment post - Covid, a PEST Analysis will be applied, as it will expose the major external factors that could influence the company in the future and provide focus to the analysis of how the extent to which Google meets Daniel Pink’s four core strategies might change.

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  • PEST Analysis

    Political Factors -

    • Greater government scrutiny
    • Several governments around the world face rising debt

     

    Economic Factors -

    • Temporary lack of workers
    • IMF expects Covid will unleash “worst recession since great depression”
    • Increase in unemployment rate

     

    Social Factors -

    • Long-term increase in remote working
    • “Continued growth in short-term jobs”
    • Increase in customer preferences for remote interactions
    • The possible need to upskill or reskill employees in the near future

     

    Technological Factors -

    • “Acceleration of digitalization and automation”
    • “The rise of connectivity and communication technologies”
    • “Rapid shift toward interacting with customers through digital channels”

     

    From the PEST Analysis, it can be noted that a conspicuous post-Covid change in the business environment will be greater flexibility and agility. For instance, there will be a notorious increase in remote working and continued growth of short-term jobs, which will likely lead Google to adapt by developing more remote and short-term roles.

     

    Moreover, technology will play an even more relevant role in people’s daily lives in the future, as noted by the acceleration of digitalization and automation, which might lead stakeholders, and especially employees, to perceive that Google’s mission is even more important than before. Additionally, the post-Covid economic turmoil, as observed by the possibility of a severe recession in the following years, can increase the extent to which Google employees are concerned with payment and financial rewards.

    Changes in the Internal Environment

    A relevant change in Google’s internal environment can be noted in its operations. In particular, the company has announced that its future workplace “is flexibility” in that the organization will “develop more remote roles” and offer several opportunities for employees to work from home a couple days a week or even apply for completely remote work.40 Moreover, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, indicated that “hybrid approaches to learning and working are here to stay”41 , and hence, Google is “committed to making hybrid work possible”.

     

    This, however, may lead, as noted by a HBS publication, to reduced opportunities for employees to receive feedback, which can translate to “lower organizational commitment and higher risk of turnover”. Moreover, as remote roles are increasing in the company, encouraging collaboration in remote teams and enhancing their sense of belonging might be more intricate. In fact, some possible outcomes can be a gradually decreasing sense of belonging and remote employees perceiving that their contributions are not that valued or relevant.

     

    Additionally, this might also affect Google’s corporate culture in the long-run, as a weaker alignment between employees and the organization’s goals, as well as hindered openness, connection, and trust among employees, can progressively occur in hybrid and remote settings since communication among colleagues and managers can be hampered in these working environments.

     

    Finally, it is noteworthy to mention the changes in employees’ perception about Google’s paying packages. For instance, in the organization’s 2021 Googlegeist survey, “only 46% of survey respondents said their total compensation is competitive compared to similar jobs at other companies,” which is 12 points below from one year earlier. This can be explained by the company’s post-Covid decision to affect employees’ salary if they decide to change locations or work completely remotely. Thus, it can be noted that Google employees perceive their post-Covid paying packages are not as competitive or fair with those offered in other companies for performing similar tasks.

    Results and Evaluation

    By applying Daniel Pink’s motivation theory, considering the changes in the company’s external and internal environment, and using the employee engagement assessment from prior-to-Covid Google as a benchmark, one can determine in what ways employee engagement in post - Covid Google is enhanced and diminished, and thus analyze what aspects from prior - to - Covid Google should be maintained, slightly adapted, or totally changed to boost employee engagement.

     

    For instance, Google must be cognizant of the possible increase in employees' perception about the importance of payment and financial factors at work due to the post-Covid economic turmoil and the decline in Googlers that perceive their paying packages as fair and commensurate with those offered at similar companies. Based on Pink’s theory, this change is expected to greatly undermine intrinsic motivation in the long-run, and hence, considerably reduce employee engagement post-Covid. The prior-to-Covid analysis shows that a reason why Google achieved an astounding employee engagement was the fact that extrinsic motivators had the goal of greatly diminishing employees concern about financial factors; hence, it would be recommended that Google slightly adjusts its paying packages to maintain its position as “one of Silicon Valley’s highest-paying companies” and ensure financial factors are not a concern for employees.

     

    On the other hand, employee autonomy is expected to notoriously augment post - Covid because of the increased flexibility in the business environment, Google’s announced hybrid approach, and the expected growth in the company’s remote and short-term job offerings. For this reason, Google should enhance its aspects, such as a flexible corporate culture and democratic and laissez - faire policies, that substantially boosted employee autonomy before Covid and adapt them for a post - Covid environment with increased remote opportunities.

     

    Nevertheless, as mentioned in Google’s post-Covid changes in the internal environment, this increase in remote and hybrid settings can diminish employees’ sense of belonging and connection with the company, as well as affect Google’s corporate culture in the long - run by hindering collaboration and weakening the alignment between employees and corporate goals.

     

    This is likely to increase the gap between Google’s espoused and enacted values, which compared to prior - to - Covid Google, can take a toll on employees’ future purpose motive. Hence, Google should adapt its leadership style, consider employees’ opinions about the future workplace and the goals the company should pursue, and recurrently emphasize corporate goals that maximize purpose in a post - Covid era to avoid a substantial decrease in the purpose motive of prior-to-Covid employees.

     

    Ultimately, employees’ pursuit of mastery at post-Covid Google is expected to be hindered by the reduced opportunities for employees to receive regular and genuine feedback in remote and hybrid settings, as noted by the HBR publication about the implications of Covid-19 on the workplace, as well as by the hampered connection between employees and Google which might lead managers to find assigning – or encouraging employees to self-assign – challenging and self-fulfilling tasks to remote workers much more difficult than before. Hence, by taking prior - to - Covid Google into account, it is recommended that Google modifies to some extent its goal-setting system and organizational structure to better adapt to a post-Covid business setting by enhancing regular and genuine feedback and strengthening the connection between employees and the company in remote and hybrid environments.

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  • Conclusion

    The application of Daniel Pink’s motivation theory helped analyze Google’s employee engagement prior to Covid, determine how and assess the extent to which it might change in a post-Covid era, hint at specific aspects and areas Google could focus on, and evaluate what aspects from prior-to-Covid Google should be restored, maintained, slightly adapted, or totally changed to boost employee engagement post-Covid, which ultimately gives an answer to the research question.

     

    Synthesizing Pink’s theory into four core strategies was useful for the purpose of this investigation, as it provided focus and limited the scope of the research. Moreover, using prior-to-Covid Google as a benchmark was a creative approach that enabled a pragmatic analysis of how Google’s employee engagement might change post - Covid by considering the aspects that used to work before Covid and determining their possible impact after taking the changes in Google’s internal and external environment post - Covid into account. Ultimately, it assisted in the proposal of changes that could be made to some of Google’s prior - to - Covid aspects, such as its paying packages and leadership style, to boost its employee engagement post - Covid.

     

    Thus, this essay has answered the research question “How can the application of Daniel Pink's motivation theory help Google boost its employee engagement in a post-Covid era?”

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    Dr. Ben Liu

    44/45 IBDP grad; 7/7 IB Bus. Mgmt. HL; 3+ yrs IB tutor; Uni Sydney faculty & med student