Former Googler on how tech giant squandered employee trust — and how Sundar Pichai can gain it back

Google Technology Company
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For more than a decade, Google has set the standard for workplace culture. Its perks and benefits, combined with its meteoric rise to the top, made it more than just an industry darling: For many in the tech world, Google was ​the
​ place to work.

Until recently.

In the past few years, Google's missteps have played out across every major business and tech publication. The big news last week was that ​Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were stepping down and handing over the reins of parent company Alphabet to current Google CEO Sundar Pichai. But even before that, the struggle of Google leadership to handle its growing global workforce has been apparent ​—​ and publicly hurting its company culture.

Late last month the tech giant was accused of firing four engineers who were organizing workers around social causes at the company. Now t​he U.S. National Labor Relations Board has begun an ​official investigation​ into the company about the incident, ​which is impacting the culture at both the company's Mountain View, California, headquarters as well as its global culture at offices around the world.

And on top of these recent events, on Tuesday, Google was knocked out of the top 10 in Glassdoor's 100 Best Places to Work in 2020, dropping three spots to No. 11. The annual list looks at eight different categories, including culture and values, work/life balance and overall company rating.

Failing to actively and continuously manage culture as a business grows has challenging consequences. What Google is now learning, publicly, is that hard-fought gains in employee trust built up over a long time frame can easily be squandered. While the situation may seem dire at the moment, there's hope for Google and other companies out there going through culture changes in their company.

And if your company is one of those, listen up: This is a valuable learning opportunity.

Companies that have built great, sustaining cultures all have one thing in common: They understand the future of work is built on the employee experience. Today's competitive talent market means businesses have to differentiate from competitors, and companies that explicitly put their people first and prioritize their employee experience will attract and retain the best talent.

So how can Google and other companies going through culture changes regain the trust of their people and lay the groundwork for a powerful employee experience? They need to focus on creating a purpose-driven culture of trust, transparency and open communication.

Here are four tips to help you create a lasting culture focused on your biggest asset — your employees.

1. Put your people first by investing in your employees

In order for people to work together effectively, they have to trust each other. While building trust takes time, the only way to get there is for companies to prioritize and invest in their employees. And it starts with the employee experience. A positive employee experience is founded in connection, meaningful impact, appreciation, and growth. In essence, the quality of the employee experience depends on how these four pillars are embedded in an employee's day-to-day interactions, from those with co-workers and customers, to your company values and work content.

"As businesses continue to innovate and move faster to get things done, it's easy to overlook something like appreciation. And that can be a fatal flaw."

With unemployment below 4%, we're in a competitive talent market. People are evaluating what their company has to offer and actively making the decision to stay or go based on how they are treated by their company. Businesses must differentiate from their competitors, and the companies that put people, culture, and engagement first will attract and retain the best talent.

2. Create a feedback culture

We all want to know that our opinions and viewpoints matter and, in the grand scheme of things, we all want to know we have some input—even a small one—in the success of our company. To gain employees' trust and respect, leaders need to open the door to frequent, two-way communication by soliciting feedback on a regular basis. By creating a culture of c​ontinuous feedback, organizations tap into the voice of their employees and better understand their needs in the workplace. But it's not just about listening to them: Your company must also take action on their feedback. Listening to and putting employee suggestions into action go a long way toward building and maintaining a culture of trust.

3. Ask your employees how they want to be managed

Connection is key to building employee trust and boosting engagement and morale. One of the biggest connections in a company is the manager-employee relationship, which can make or break a team and your organization as a whole. So how do you create a positive manager-employee relationship? It starts by understanding that no two employees are the same​—​so don't try to manage them the same way. ​Every manager should have open and honest conversations with each member of their team about how they want to be managed, from work style and goal-setting to how often check-ins should occur. Working with your managers to tailor their management styles to their direct reports will build trust between the manager and employee, contribute to a healthier company culture, and allow all employees to thrive and enjoy their work.

4. Recognize each employee individually

It's simple: When people know what they're doing well, they are likely to do more of it. Yet as businesses continue to innovate and move faster to get things done, it's easy to overlook something like appreciation. And that can be a fatal flaw. Since the average American spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime​, they want to know that their work is fulfilling, making an impact, and — you guessed it — appreciated. By giving regular, positive recognition, employees can better understand how their work impacts corporate goals and will feel valued and motivated to make a difference. Plus, positive reinforcement builds positive behaviors. It's a win-win. And while this seems small, these actions go a long way toward building employee trust, both between manager and employee, as well as employees' trust in the organization as a whole.

—By Paul Pellman, a former Googler, is CEO of employee experience platform Kazoo

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at the @ Work Summit in New York on April 1–2, 2020.