Google crunches data on munching in office

September 1, 2013

Last year Google had an M&M problem. So as it does with most dilemmas, the Internet giant put its data wizards into action.

Employees were eating too much of the free candy and that, the firm surmised, might hinder efforts to keep workers healthy and happy.

So in what could be called Project M&M, a special ops force of behavioral science PhDs conducted surveys of snacking patterns, collected data on the proximity of M&M bins to any given employee, consulted academic papers on food psychology, and launched an experiment.

What if the company kept the chocolates hidden in opaque containers but prominently displayed dried figs, pistachios and other healthful snacks in glass jars? The results: In the New York office alone, employees consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms over seven weeks. That’s a decrease of nine vending machine-size packages of M&Ms for each of the office’s 2,000 employees.

The titan of Internet data is taking its own medicine, using the data analysis that has helped the company produce $55 billion in revenue each year to improve the morale and productivity of its 40,000 employees. Many tech companies offer perks such as free snacks or cafeteria food. But at Google, almost every benefit is broken down into crunchable, poll-able or graphicable data, including salaries, the length of maternity leave, the size of the plates used at the food bar or even the squishy goal of workplace happiness.

Google says it’s too hard to prove that the M&M experiment directly led to a svelter staff or whether employees felt happier just because they were eating less of the calorie-packed snack. It won’t talk about how many people leave the company each year.

But the Mountain View, Calif., firm often ranks high on best places to work surveys by Fortune magazine and other business publications. And the company credits efforts like the M&M project as a testament to the benefits of science over feel-good ideas or gut instinct that have dominated human resource philosophy.

“Data can be a way at getting to the truth. When people talk about data, it becomes an abstract of machines, robots and terabytes of information. But really, it’s just facts; numbers that describe a reality,” said Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations, the group overseeing most human resource issues.

Of course, the use of data doesn’t negate a manager’s instinct or common sense, he said. In August of last year, Google started giving death benefits because it was “the right thing to do,” Bock said — a decision that was not based on an in-depth data analysis. The benefit grants the partners of deceased employees half of that person’s pay for a full decade. But too often, Bock said, leaders at other firms rely on what feels right without considering the truths that can be laid bare in the collection of data.

Some workplace experts question the lengths that Google is going to analyze every corner of its offices. Some of the lab experiments are remarkably obvious. If you put out more free fruit, of course it will be taken. And some analysts question whether the free meals, napping stations and inexpensive massages make people stay in the office longer, perpetuating a work-obsessed culture that has eaten into family life and community.

“You have to question the expectations behind such perks. If they are giving you dinner and lunch, you are probably not expected to leave at that time. Perks aren’t just about fun and games,” said Miriam Salpeter, owner of Keppie Careers, a job search and social media consulting firm. “They may have really good motives, but for a for-profit business, the motives are ultimately to make a profit, and everyone is a cog in that wheel for creating the good ideas, useful tools and other things the company is creating.”

Yet other experts say Google is trying to signal that it cares about employees. And in a dour economy where pensions, health care and other core benefits are being cut to the bone, Google’s efforts are welcomed by new employees.

“There may be a symbolic importance in the M&Ms, where an employee could interpret the experiment as part of a culture that cares for them, where leaders are connected to its people,” said John Nelson, a career expert and author of “What Color is My Parachute for Retirement.”

For Google, it’s more than just the candy that employees consume. In another case, the company tried to get workers to drink more water. So it stashed bottled water on eye-level shelves and behind clear glass. It then put sugary sodas on the bottom shelves of refrigerators and behind frosted glass. After several weeks, water consumption increased 47 percent while the calories consumed by drinking sugary beverages fell 7 percent.

Some of these results were displayed on signs in hallways and in the cafeterias for Google’s stats-loving employees. In a follow-up survey, Google said 70 percent of its 40,000 employees said they like knowing nutritional facts.

In the New York office alone, there are four full cafeterias and 35 “microkitchens.” Co-founder Sergey Brin insists that every Google employee be no more than 200 feet away from free food. The idea is that eating brings people together, and new products and services could be imagined when engineers and business leaders meet at kitchens and dining halls.

But even the plates at the food bars have been Google-ized. To get people to eat smaller portions, the staff experimented with plate sizes, providing a big one and a small one. Nearly one-third of employees chose the smaller plates and didn’t go back for more servings. When Google posted the result in cafeteria signs, the overall use of small plates increased a further 50 percent.

This helped the company’s goal of reducing the calories consumed by its workers.

“With a company as big as Google, you have to start small to make a difference. We apply the same level of rigor, analysis and experimentation on people as we do the tech side,” said Jennifer Kurkoski, a PhD in organizational behavior and a member of Google’s HR team commonly called “People Ops” within the company.

Engineering manager Mike Harm said he doubts the free banana chips and granola would make the difference in deciding where someone works.

But Harm, who has been working on Google’s cloud storage app for six years, admits he likes the paternal nudge of Google putting dried seaweed snacks and ripened pears within easy grasp. Chocolate peanut butter cups and potato chips are still available. But they are stashed in drawers. “What I love is that I don’t have to ever think twice about the coffee beans in this machine being stocked,” he said banging on a high-end Italian espresso maker in one of the New York office’s kitchens. “It’s removing the obstacles of my day to just let me focus on what I want to do.”

“It’s about the work, not the fact that I get free food. I have a Manhattan apartment; I can afford to buy Pringles at the corner market,” he added, munching on air-popped plain popcorn.

Inside Google’s offices, the energy is as kinetic as the streets of Manhattan. Employees dart down halls on scooters. Hallways are busy with fast-walking employees cradling MacBooks in their arms.

In the Watertower Cafe, one of the cafeterias, murals of the cityscape blend with massive windows that open into views of Manhattan rooftops. Planters of live ferns and rocks are scattered throughout the dining area so that it feels like al fresco dining.

Even New York’s famously gritty subway air vents have been re-created. On one floor, designers put wads of chewed gum, dust and dirt under the ornamental vents to make them look authentic.

The company won’t say how much it spends on such perks. It’s guarded about its People Ops team, which began in 2006 as the company exploded in size. And it won’t disclose the number of people who worked on the M&M project.

Spokeswoman Chrissy Persico said Google does not use such benefits to keep people in the office.

Yet the effects are clear to engineers such as Alex Golynski, who was grabbing a heaping cup of raspberries and espresso from a Lego-inspired micro-kitchen near his cubicle on a recent afternoon.

Golynski darts around the office in one of the freely available Google scooters. He would have picked fruit over M&Ms even if the candy were easy to reach, he said. And he’s never stopped to think much about the nutritional data displayed about the candy.

“The food is convenient,” said Golynski, who has worked on search engineering for five years. “So I spend time at my desk,” he added, scooting away.

Sarah Halzack contributed to this report.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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