Do you, like me, sometimes sit in the office and wonder how people got any work done in the good old days? You know, when the tables were topped with Formica, files were actually made of paper and board, and the boss sat in a huge wood-panelled room in a swivel chair with a turkey towel draped over it. That was also a time when they had no computers, email and, significantly, no Google.
Personally, I can’t imagine such a life. A life without the search engine always ready to give me thousands of results for basic queries such as “office culture column+published in obscure newspapers outside India+around 800 words+in English+author not finicky about copyright”.
Indeed, there are few jobs I can think of that do not require employees to spend a few minutes every day scouring Google results. For many people, I assume, their entire job involves Googling. So much so that offices no longer harbour the kind of respect they used to for their more senior employees. The types who were once esteemed walking human repositories of information and minutiae on taxation law, the Partnership Act of 1932, etc.
Nowadays, the boss simply sticks his head out of the open-plan cubicle and screams out some query on the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act. Immediately, one of the sprightly interns, who took two weeks to learn faxing, throws himself at a PC, summons a window and pushes a few buttons. He triumphantly stands up a few moments later, flush with excitement from having used technology, to announce: “Sir, the Internet is down.”
The power of Google, I tell you.
But recently, news has emerged from Google’s offices that should send a shiver down every employee’s back. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the geeks at Google had come up with an algorithm that would crunch “data from employee reviews and promotion and pay histories in a mathematical formula” and would show which of its 20,000 employees were the most likely to quit soon.
My contacts in human resources (HR) tell me that this is a momentous event in the history of the manpower management science. Their very own Newtonian moment in which the apple falls on the Head of Personnel and Training. For centuries, HR professionals have been struggling to find a way of telling which employees on their watch will suddenly want to “go abroad for higher studies”, quit and then join the competition across the road. One moment a bright young worker is picked out for Advanced Leadership Training, and the next, he is camping outside the accounts section for 12 days in a row waiting for his full and final settlement cheque.
Google’s algorithm could help solve this critical dilemma. “Imagine what I could do with it,” our frequent contributor of HR insight Mata HaRi told me. “I could run this formula on all our employees and draw up a list of traitors thinking of jumping ship. And then, whenever they went away on ‘long lunches’ or ‘surprise client meetings’, I could forcibly tag along. Thus killing hopes of secret interviews. I’d have the power to stall their careers! And control them like puppets!”
Which, almost verbatim, is Mata HaRi’s most important KRA for 2009.
While loyal employees who are highly diligent have nothing to fear, for others—such as people who read office culture columns on Friday mornings—this algorithm could prove to be highly problematic. So far, we’ve been a shrewd bunch who have somehow managed through subterfuge and mis-truths to keep our career plans secret. When the CEO ran into us in the elevator and asked how everything was, we always said: “Awesome, I just totally LOVE my job! Do we HAVE to shut down office at 9.00pm? I could get so much done by staying in overnight!”
Instead, what we really wanted to say was: “I hate you. I hate your company, your 2.3% raise and, if I could get away with it, I’d firebomb your cubicle. Paintings, wine bottles and all. After I get off the lift on the third floor, I hope the cable breaks and you die a slow, painful death in the lift shaft— cold, alone and uncared for.”
But we did not. We played our cards close to our chests, we smiled broadly, and we lied. That has been the way of unhappy employees since time immemorial. The question on our minds, then, is simple: “Will the fiends at Google cramp our style?”
Thankfully, the answer, for now, seems to be in the negative. Just this Tuesday, People Management magazine reported that the chances of Google commercially releasing the quitter finder algorithm were dim. A spokesman for Google clarified that “The development of HR algorithms is not our core business”.
Yet, I request readers to be highly vigilant while you prepare resumes in the office and plan “urgent working lunches”. The enemy is watching.
Now do excuse me, as I need to rush out for a quick coffee with this confidential source who is critical for this breaking news story of mine. Wink.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org