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How to build the perfect workplace

Geoffrey Colvin

The one thing absolutely everyone knows about working at Google is that you get free, gourmet-quality food all day long. Stuffed quail, lavender pecan cornbread, aloo gobi, fresh fruits and vegetables, Gruyère mac and cheese—just go get it. Many know also that Google provides free gyms, free massages, and generous parental leave, plus cash bonuses when a baby is born; dogs are welcome. Beautiful offices are about to be upgraded in a spectacular planned new headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., the New York Times reported in late February (though details on the campus were sketchy at presstime). So when people see that Google  GOOG -1.46%  is No. 1 on Fortune’s new ranking of America’s Best Companies to Work For—for the sixth time—they understandably figure the reason must be those incredible employee perks. But that isn’t why. Knockout perks aren’t the reason any company makes this list. The essence of a great workplace is just that: an essence, an indispensable quality that determines its character.

Understanding that quality—understanding it well enough to build a corporate organization around it—has long been a goal of great companies. And it’s getting rapidly more valuable too. That’s because as the economy changes, employers who don’t know the secret will be at a deepening disadvantage to those who do.

Which brings us back to those famous Google perks. The truth is, while the most sought-after talent doesn’t generally flock to a company because of certain benefits and giveaways (nice as they may be), the perks themselves can teach us about the company’s essence—why, that is, some employers are such super-powerful magnets for the world’s best employees year after year. Listen to what an ex-Googler told Quora.com about Google’s nonstop free buffet: It “helps me build relationships with my colleagues.”

Hold on—food helps build relationships? It does when it’s used right. Data-obsessed Google measures the length of the cafeteria lines to make sure people have to wait a while (optimally three to four minutes) and have time to talk. It makes people sit at long tables, where they’re likelier to be next to or across from someone they don’t know, and it puts those tables a little too close together so you might hit someone when you push your chair back and thus meet someone new—the Google bump, employees call it. And now we begin to see the real reason Google offers all that fantastic free fare: to make sure workers will come to the cafeterias, where they’ll start and strengthen personal relationships.

That is, the food is just a tool for reaching a goal, and the goal is strong, numerous, rewarding personal relationships. Success obviously requires more than free food, but we’re glimpsing the explanation of workplace greatness. That same Googler said, “The best perk of working at Google is working at Google,” and the No. 1 reason he gave was the people: “We are surrounded by smart, driven people who provide the best environment for learning I’ve ever experienced.” (For more on the company’s people strategy, see “Google’s 10 Things to Transform Your Team and Your Workplace” in this issue.)

Here’s the simple secret of every great place to work: It’s personal—not perkonal. It’s relationship-based, not transaction-based. Astoundingly, many employers still don’t get that, though it was the central insight of Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz when they assembled the first 100 Best list in the early 1980s. (For their insights into this year’s ranking, see their introduction to the list.) “The key to creating a great workplace,” they said, “was not a prescriptive set of employee benefits, programs, and practices, but the building of high-quality relationships in the workplace.” Reaching far deeper into people than corporate benefits and cool offices ever can, those relationships are why some workers love their employers and hate to leave and why job applicants will crawl over broken glass to work at those places.

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