Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s vision for return to work

Google CEO Sundar Pichai  (Photo: AFP)
Google CEO Sundar Pichai  (Photo: AFP)


‘We’ve been living through a couple of decades where work has gotten busy, commutes were tough. I think people felt very stretched’

Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is a night owl who says he gets a second wind around 9 p.m. After 10 p.m., though, is when he’s most productive, and he says he finds it very helpful to power through a lot of work at that hour. When it’s finally time for bed, he tries to get about six and a half to seven hours of sleep, and so he usually wakes up between 6:45 and 7:30 a.m.

“I really value quiet time in the morning," says Pichai, 49. “It’s the only time where I get to step back and reflect. Normally I have a quiet breakfast; reading the news is very important to me. I always read the Journal in the morning. I read other news as well, and get a good sense of what’s happening in the world." Pichai, who’s a vegetarian, has had the same breakfast almost every day for 15 years—eggs and toast, and chai to drink—so he can focus on other things he needs to do.

Pichai was born and raised in Chennai, India. After college in India, he earned a scholarship to study at Stanford University, where he received an M.S. in materials science and engineering. He worked at semiconductor company Applied Materials before getting his M.B.A. from Wharton. After graduating, Pichai had a stint in management consulting at McKinsey & Co. and then joined Google in 2004 as a project manager, where he worked on Google Chrome and Google Toolbar. In 2014, he was appointed product chief by Google co-founder Larry Page before being selected to become the next CEO after Page stepped down from the position a year later. Pichai was promoted in 2019 to the CEO position at Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Here, he talks to WSJ. about what he does to relax and the importance of tie-breaking decisions he learned from his mentor, Bill Campbell.

What makes a Monday morning different from other weekday mornings?

Monday morning particularly is the time when I really try to think about the important things I want to get done for the week, or deeper thoughts. I have a notepad and a pen and I often write down the three to five things I want to get done that week.

Do you check it off as you go along?

Because I only write three to five things—so it’s in my head, what I’m trying to get done—on Fridays, I look back and strike off/decide what I want to carry over to next week.

Do you set aside a specific time to meditate or journal or brainstorm or anything like that?

Meditation is something I see the value of, but I struggle to do that. Walking is very helpful to me. I find it much easier to think when I’m walking or pacing. Through the pandemic, sometimes it’s been helpful to take my dog out for a walk, and I can relax by listening to podcasts. I found these podcasts which are non-sleep deep rest, or NSDRs. So while I find it difficult to meditate, I can go to YouTube, find an NSDR video. They’re available in 10, 20 or 30 minutes, so I do that occasionally.

What’s your exercise routine like?

Weekends are big for me. Saturday and Sunday, I properly do workouts. I tend to walk/hike a lot as well. On Friday evening, I end my week with a workout. Monday through Thursday, it’s a bit more when I can grab it. Late at the end of the day before dinner, I’ll squeeze a workout in. I definitely get bored doing the same thing, so it can be a Peloton bike workout or I just choose something and do it.

What are your thoughts on return to work and the future of the office right now? What do you think is the best model for the future?

The thing I’m most excited about is I think the future of work will be flexible. I see it as a new canvas on which we can develop newer ways, which make people’s work life more fulfilling and their personal lives more fulfilling. Even 20 years ago, Google did things very differently, embraced the notion that there could be fun at work, and creating that flexibility gave people a chance to be more creative and collaborative and fostered a sense of community. So I feel like there’s an even deeper chance—you know, we’ve been living through a couple of decades where work has gotten busy, commutes were tough. I think people felt very stretched…. We deal with a lot of people who are really motivated, high achieving. And I think empowering them to have that flexibility will bring out the best in them, for themselves, personally and professionally, which will work for the company as well.

Specifically, we do think it’s important to get people in a few days a week, but we are embracing all options. Setup for our workforce will be fully remote, but most of our workforce will be coming in three days a week. But I think we can be more purposeful about the time they’re in, making sure group meetings or collaboration, creative collaborative brainstorming or community building, happens then. I’m excited. I think people and teams are going to figure this out, but overall I feel energized that we get to rethink for the next 10 years.

Last year Alphabet had its best year of revenue growth since 2007, and stock prices jumped 65 percent. Do you feel pressure to pull off a repeat this year?

I always say to take a very long-term view, and I feel our performance last year was the result of many decisions we made many years ago. For example, when I look at last year, some of the strength came from our deep investments in AI from many years ago. The long-term focus on things like… using AI to improve search quality over many years, the big bets we made on building YouTube and Cloud into long-term businesses. I’ve always felt like you make long-term bets and they play out over time. There are other long-term efforts we’ve been working on, and that’s what gives me a great sense of optimism about what’s ahead.

How do you reconcile a company like Google/Alphabet being a global giant? How do you maintain a spirit of innovation and not become too cautious?

You worry about it every day. At a fundamental level, the two or three attributes I would say are: One, I spoke about before, you take a long-term view. [Two,] I think we have an optimistic culture, in the power of technology to solve problems. And three, which is most important, you have to encourage and reward risk taking. It’s easier said than done. A lot of people say it, but I think most people end up thwarting outcomes. Personally, I pull people up, I promote people, based on knowing they took a risk and gave it their best and made smart decisions, and the outcomes may not always reflect that. That leads to innovation over time.

What are you reading and watching?

I’ve been enjoying podcasts and YouTube to learn and to relax. I tend to, on YouTube, watch a lot of long-form content that’s learning-oriented on many things. It may be new things like, “Hey, I need to learn about mRNA technology because it’s something I don’t work on, and I don’t understand and I need to understand." Or I try to understand what’s happening in physics or AI or so on. [Editor’s note: Google owns YouTube.] I actually find it very relaxing, particularly if it’s away from my field. I’m reading a lot of cosmology or astrophysics, all that I find very relaxing. Sports is a good way to relax, I love football, as in the real football, and cricket. I also try to watch what my wife and my kids are interested in; it’s a way to connect, and so I try to do that as well.

What makes you feel the most productive?

One of my mentors was Bill Campbell, who was kind of a coach to many people in the Valley. [Editor’s note: Campbell, who died in 2016, was an ex–football coach and business executive who was the subject of Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook from Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle.] I used to meet him on Mondays. He would ask, which is kind of a famous line he had, “What ties did you break this week?" When you run a large organization, there are constantly things that are bottlenecked because groups see things differently and they can’t align, and there’s no one to actually make that tie-breaking decision sometimes. Making those decisions isn’t always easy; sometimes there are difficult trade-offs. So making one decision like that can make me feel very productive. Productivity isn’t always about you doing a lot of things yourself; it’s about understanding how you unlock productivity for the whole organization. Getting some of those longer-term positions, pivots, big bets, people in the roles, breaking ties—those are the things to me that are a lot more productive than the fact that I sent 50 or 100 emails in a day.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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