The Google Healthiness Machine

Bill Walsh | January 24, 2013 | Policies

For the fourth year in a row Fortune magazine has named Google the best company in America to work for. Slate technology columnist Fahrad Manjoo attributes this success to a relentless data-driven campaign to attract and retain the best employees in the ultra-competitive field of software engineering.[1] He calls this: The Google Happiness Machine. It also foreshadows how the company is about to change the building industry. Here comes the Google Healthiness Machine.

Google has long been a leader in the green building movement. Its global headquarters building in Mountain View, California is LEED Platinum, and they have six million square feet of LEED projects underway globally.[2] The company estimates its data centers use 50% less energy than the typical data center. Aware of its capacity to leverage societal transformation, Google shares detailed energy performance data to help move the entire industry forward, and made a billion dollar investment in renewable energy sources designed to create more energy than the company uses.[3]

Last November,, the company's philanthropic arm, made a $3 million grant to the US Green Building Council for researching building material hazards and identifying healthier alternatives. "The idea for this project emerged from our own work at Google, where we're committed to creating the healthiest work environments possible, that help employees perform at their best," said Anthony Ravitz, Google's Green Team Lead. "We avoid materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other known toxins that may harm human health, so Googlers don't have to worry about the air they're breathing."

Long in the vanguard of promoting transparency in building materials — Google is a founding member of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, implements the Living Building Challenge Red List, and advocates for full disclosure of product contents for its construction projects using our own Pharos Project — this new initiative will ultimately put chemical hazard data directly in service to the vaunted happiness machine.

In a move that Manjoo said "exemplifies" how Google became the country's best employer, the Google happiness machine took aggressive action to understand and then reduce the attrition rate of new mothers, which had been twice the company's average departure rate. Today, attrition rates for new mothers are no different the that of rest of the their workforce.

Imagine then, the potential for increasing a mother's happiness, or a future mother's, by reducing her exposure to chemicals that can affect her unborn child. Writing just last Sunday in The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof cited a new study in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives that found "endocrine disruptors that are sometimes added to PVC plastic cause mice to grow obese and suffer liver problems — and the effect continues with descendants of those mice, generation after generation." Google, it should be noted, began avoiding the use of PVC building products years ago.

Google's health-based initiatives have a strong track record of raising the bar and redefining industry metrics. Consider for example, that the number two company on the Forbes list this year, SAS, was recognized for its new initiative to provide organic food in the company's four cafeterias. Google has been doing that since at least 2006, and today feeds 40,000 people daily with seasonal, organic food (45% of purchases), 60% of which is sourced from small farms, and 30% of which is sourced directly from local farms.

If this history is any guide, the Google Healthiness Machine will up the ante again on what it takes to be among the best places to work.


[1] The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 30% growth rate for this job category through 2020, much faster than the average for any other job.