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Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Here's how Laura Mae Martin helps Google's top execs work smarter.

Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, works one-on-one with the company's top brass.

Image: Google

If productivity were a product at Google, then Laura Mae Martin would be its product manager.

She's Google's executive productivity adviser, a job she created following a successful 20% project about managing inboxes that she debuted while working in keyword sales. As the company's top expert on productivity, her remit seems simple enough: Make Googlers more efficient in their day-to-day work lives. But in practice, that means working directly with the top executives of a trillion-dollar company to make some of tech's most sought-after talent better at what they do.

For Martin, cooking up ways to phase out inefficiencies didn't begin at the tech giant, but in her childhood kitchen. While making cupcakes with her sister she realized that rather than frosting and adding sprinkles to each cupcake one-by-one, a frost-first, sprinkle-second method saved time. Martin now advocates for similar concepts at Google — even if the processes have more to do with Python than pastries these days.

While Google's executive team has been taking advantage of some of Google's best tips and tricks internally for years, the company recently made a lot of them public. Just a couple of months ago, in October, Google transitioned G Suite into Google Workspace, and in the process rolled out many of the tried-and-true hacks to its over 2 billion users.

While the revamp may have caused you to mistake Calendar for Drive this fall, Google sees the criticism of its homogenous icons as a feature, not a bug. Each Workspace app is still distinct in its purpose, it argues, but a focus on integration means each one can now do a little bit of what the others do too.

We spoke to Martin to find out how she helps Google's execs boost their productivity and how to make best use of some of Workspace's feature integrations. Here are some of the highlights.

Read nine of Martin's favorite productivity tricks here.

Know who you are

Martin's approach starts with a diagnosis. There's a spectrum Martin sees among the people she works with: On one side are the executives who need to approach productivity with a different mindset altogether to reclaim large stretches of time, and on the other are the executives who need to fine-tune their use of products and repurpose shorter chunks of time. She likens it to finding ways to eat better.

"You pick up a book about healthy eating, and you want to hear all the things about why you should eat that way or what's healthy about fruits and vegetables," she said. "But you also want the recipes. You need both."

In Google's case, that journey to a healthy work diet begins with a questionnaire Martin prepares for any of her one-on-one meetings with the company's C-suite. Martin says in her years of working with executives, she's developed archetypes of executives at the company that serve as frameworks for how she begins coaching. For global executives, for example, she needs to find time in the middle of the day, since international calls consume mornings and nights. When working with senior engineers, she often needs to look for tips that will keep them in a single product to limit the time spent switching back and forth and breaking their concentration.

"I have a couple of profiles of types of executives, and nobody fits perfectly, but it helps me guide through what my tips or thoughts would be," Martin said. "Some people prefer in-person communication, some people really need downtime or really need an agenda. I've seen enough of those profiles that I can now guide my advice instead of saying this is what works because it works for me."

Learn how you work

In a recent session with an executive who was overseeing product reviews that were eating up his days, with hour-long demos and subsequent time for feedback, she saw someone who needed more time back than product hacks alone could offer.

"We took the radical approach, saying, 'Let's just shave 30 minutes off those meetings,'" she said. "What if we cut that in half and challenged the teams to make the most of that time? It forced them to send a lot of material ahead of time, and we started blocking pre-read time so that he could review things that didn't need to be presented"

Martin said the transition for the team, like most changes, made people uncomfortable at the start. But the payoff came when the meetings were more engaging and helpful to the employees presenting, since questions could be more specific following the pre-reads.

Stop switching context

Though Martin occasionally gets to use an axe to reshape an executive's schedule, her work is more often done with the precision of a scalpel. That's typically where she leans into product tips that can additively save a few minutes each day. One of Martin's favorite tricks: a calendar invite from an email.

"You have an email going, people are talking and you're like, 'let's just meet about this,'" she said. "You click a button and it makes a calendar invite with the description and all those people, instead of backing out, opening Google Calendar and copying all those people in. That one tip could save you minutes multiple times a day, and that really adds up."

Another small hack she advocates for is tab grouping in Chrome. Instead of wading through a sea of tiny tabs at the top of the browser, the grouping feature allows users to put multiple tabs under a heading for easy navigation.

Both illustrate how Google is trying to cut down on the amount of time between thinking something in a business context and actually doing it.

Become a super user

Those instances of integrating one product with another just scratch the surface of what the company sees Workspace allowing users (and its own employees) to do.

Already, Google has rolled out new preview features in Docs that don't require users to go to a new tab to scroll through a document. In the "coming months," Google plans to introduce picture-in-picture video via Meet into Docs and Slides, which will allow users to create on-demand, instant meetings with the other people editing a document simultaneously.

So much of productivity is thought of as getting from point A to point B faster, but Google's approach is increasingly about getting people in and out of each point between the beginning and the end more quickly. For Martin, the minutes shaved off of switching from task to task and the resulting focus are what can actually help cut down the total time needed to complete a project.

"Those are the types of things that our products are developing more and more of as far as collaboration across teams," she said. "We're really at an exciting place right now with Workspace, seeing how those are now all coming together."

Work how your brain works

Perhaps unsurprisingly at the company that revolutionized the search engine, search can also play a key role in productivity as well. For Martin, that means advocating for executives to employ the infrastructure that makes a search effective in their own file management — whatever their file management style is. It's a strategy she says is particularly effective when someone is trying to work even at times when their setup is inconvenient.

In a recent productivity session, she aimed to address that exact challenge with a marketing executive who most often found himself having ideas outside of the office. Trading extemporaneous notes for a platform that was searchable and organized allowed him to take notes the way he naturally wanted to. When he'd see an image, an ad or just a visual that he thought might be useful for future campaigns while he was out in the world, he would take a picture and hashtag it with a keyword that would populate a folder of ideas for quick reference later on.

"He then had a bulletin board in Google Keep that was just ideas, and he had an organization system that wasn't how I would organize, but it was how his brain worked," Martin said. "Because he could color-code all of these things, it was where he went for his ideas later."

Think of email like laundry

Introducing order where there is none is a big part of how Martin works. In fact, it was the thesis of one of her first initiatives around managing an inbox effectively, particularly through multiple inboxes. A standard feature on Gmail now, it was originally just an add-on that Martin began teaching in her internal course on productivity.

"I think about email like laundry. Your inbox is your dryer, but then you need to take everything out and make tiles like you're folding and you're hanging clothes," she said. "It can't just be all in the dryer all the time."

Teaching employees at Google about how to properly organize emails between inboxes led Martin to conversations with the Gmail team directly, and her feedback about how people were using the product catalyzed the feature's implementation.

"That was one cool feature that I feel like I saw from like a little baby add-on to a full-blown adult product," she said. "That's probably my favorite part of my job: Not just teaching the products, but helping shape them in the long run."

* * *

In launching Workspace late last year, Google laid out its products in such a way that each tool becomes slightly more reliant on the features that work well in its sister applications over time. Similarly, Martin's work has led her to try to get Google employees to do the same.

In a weekly email, she highlights to more than half the company the use cases for product features she's observed, and gives tips on how those same hacks could be replicated across different company processes and teams.

We can't all enjoy that kind of bespoke advice. But we can probably all find a cupcake trick or two somewhere in Martin's tips.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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