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Originally published Monday, September 2, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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Google crunches data on munching in office

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.

The Washington Post

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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 company 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 Ph.D.s 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.

The Mountain View, Calif., company (which has offices in Kirkland and Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, and has plans to expand into Bothell) often ranks high on best-places-to-work surveys by Fortune magazine and other business publications.

And Google credits such efforts as 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.

“The right thing to do”

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.

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.”

Water works

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 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.

Smaller plates

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 Ph.D. 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.”

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