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Time to rethink our approach to employment

Would you care to work for this company?

This company makes it easy for you to get to work. It provides air-conditioned buses from five locations, free of charge for all employees. And the buses are Wi-Fi enabled. If you drive to work, your car will be washed and have its oil changed while you work. And if you want to buy an environmentally friendly hybrid car, this company will give you US$ 5,000 towards it.

Feeling hungry? Not very likely in this company. It provides 11 cafeterias for your delectation. You can eat as much as you like, whenever you like. Oh, and there’s no charge. Whatever you get out of a vending machine at this company is also free. Help yourself.

This company does not want you to be distracted by everyday errands while you are at work. So it will do many odd jobs for you, such as bill payment and dropping off your dry-cleaning. It operates free washing and drying machines onsite. It also has a gym and a massage room.

Worried about what to do with your kids? No sweat. This company has free child care facilities. Feeling a little unwell? There are five onsite company doctors to give you checkups. Did I mention that was free as well? And did you just have a new baby? Your employer will reimburse you US $500 worth of take-away food vouchers to ease the first four weeks at home.

Does this sound like a company all your friends should join? Well, if you refer them and one of them actually gets a job, you would be US$ 2,000 richer, courtesy of the company.

No, I haven’t been sitting in traffic sniffing those toxic exhaust fumes that no-one thinks of banning. This company actually exists, and it actually does all those things for its people. You might even have heard of it, vaguely. It’s called Google Inc., and it’s just won Fortune magazine’s ‘Top Employer to Work For’ award. Unsurprisingly, Google receives 1,300 CVs per day.

Google has a ‘ten things’ philosophy. One of the ‘things’ is: “You can be serious without a suit.” Google explains: “Work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun. To that end, Google’s culture is unlike any in corporate America…Google Inc. puts employees first when it comes to daily life in our Googleplex headquarters. There is an emphasis on team achievements and pride in individual accomplishments that contribute to the company’s overall success. Ideas are traded, tested and put into practice with an alacrity that can be dizzying. Meetings that would take hours elsewhere are frequently little more than a conversation in line for lunch and few walls separate those who write the code from those who write the checks. This highly communicative environment fosters a productivity and camaraderie fueled by the realization that millions of people rely on Google results. Give the proper tools to a group of people who like to make a difference, and they will.”

Dizzying indeed. Is Google crazy? US$10 billion in revenues and US$3 billion in profits. That kind of crazy. Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organisational-behaviour professor at Stanford, thinks it’s more thoughtful than crazy. Google might spend ‘silly money’ on employee perks, but it will actually save more in productivity gains. The Google culture buys amazing loyalty. People dream about joining Google (as you are doing now); if they ever leave, it’s to start their own companies. Google wins talent wars against its key competitors hands down, Microsoft included.

What do we make of this in Kenya? Well, the rest of America has a long way to go before it emulates Google in exciting employees; so let’s not get too excited about what we’re doing. We come from an employment culture that gives nothing for free; that watches and suspects employees’ every move; that gives handsome rewards only to the top layer; that ferries people to work like cattle in trucks.

Most Kenyan chief executives will be getting very annoyed at this point: “Dangerous nonsense being spouted this Sunday – throw the paper away.” A few, however, will be sitting back to reflect. Those few will be questioning their assumptions about employment and human capital. They may be realising that making your company a great place to work for all employees can ONLY be a good thing. That creating an absolutely top work environment could actually pay for itself by attracting and embedding the best talent.

It’s all about people, people. It isn’t even always about spending money; it’s more about conferring genuine respect. An organisation is only as great as its average employee. People respond warmly to those organisations that treat them with thoughtfulness and respect. We don’t have to get as ‘crazy’ as Google; but there is a whole mindset shift waiting to happen. And because the bar is so low in Kenya, achieving a measure of uniqueness is not that difficult.

Perhaps those few CEOs are now picking up the phone to start a very, very long conversation with their HR managers…

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