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Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

Google Workspace

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

Soltero joined the Source Code podcast to talk about the new tools and how he's planning for the future of work both as a team leader and a product maker.

You can hear our full conversation in this episode of the Source Code podcast. The following excerpts from our conversation have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was talking to somebody the other day who said, "We've never had clients ask us about burnout before." They care, but it's never been sort of a top-of-mind concern: How do I make sure my employees are happy, and that work-life balance is real, and that they're taking time off? These have just never been things that are top of mind when you think about quote-unquote productivity software.

But the whole universe of this stuff feels different now. And it seems like both for you as somebody who runs a large team, but then also having to build that kind of ethos into products, that would feel hugely complicated, and totally unlike anything we've ever done in this space before.

Look, if you're lucky enough to love what you do for a living, you'll never work a day in your life.

Except now.

Right? Not everybody is lucky enough to work on something they're passionate about, but even to those that are, there's that new set of conflicts. You've now disassociated or disconnected work with a specific location, and that is both a blessing and a curse in its own way. And along with that, the need for time and attention management at the individual level becomes crucial.

Both of these things were true before the pandemic, they were just not universally experienced. They were viewed as a mere speed bump: "Oh, yeah, I can check my email on on the road," or "Hey, today, I'm working from home because I have a doctor's appointment." And then on the time and attention management front, no shortage of products and apps and devices and so forth are calling to us, for different reasons. That was also a known problem before, but when that's happening in the midst of all these other demands, and you're already also emotionally spent, then the energy that normally kept us fired up about our work is harder to sustain.

Lastly, there's the absence of human connection, which I've personally found maybe the hardest of all things. I've got two executives on my team who I've never actually witnessed in three-dimensional space. Yeah, I'm leading a team of people around the world who have experienced me through a two-dimensional piece of glass, right, which is terrible. So that the absence of that human connection, which is felt, again, universally by everyone, in their own way, also saps at that, and there are no good ways, at least for now, to remedy that. Saying "Well, let's spend more time on video calls" isn't the answer.

It's an underrated feature of a physical workplace that I can just walk over to you and ask you something. And when that's gone, what do we do? I feel like that's the next big question.

I saw some really creative applications of existing capabilities meant to try to address some of the problems that are at the heart of how this has affected us all. I'll give you a good example: I noticed that a group of people in my team were using their out-of-office email autoresponder to provide daily updates, to basically auto-reply to every message to set expectations with the sender about their working hours and their availability.

Then you get to the uneven application of that, and you ask, well, why? And part of the answer is a little scary, because it involves the courage that those people had to actually explicitly say, "No, I actually am not available, because I've got other responsibilities, other demands on my time." In pre-pandemic work culture, there was a question there about whether you will be perceived as a hard-charging, go-getter type of person, when you're even with the best of intentions trying to set expectations for other people.

And you get to the product opportunity around that. You say, well, this is a really crude instrument for this. So we've got this capability now to set working hours. And we introduced a bunch of enhancements around the minimal set of actions that I can take as an individual — to convey to others who want to collaborate with me and communicate with me — my availability. And it's really elegant and important in how we do it.

But what the usage of that feature represents is an aspect of a social contract that every company has, around how its workers behave with each other and how they respect each other's time. Very few, if any, companies that I've seen have taken the trouble to actually describe what that contract actually looks like. Much less to try and steer it.

So do you feel some responsibility to try to have and share a right answer inside the product?

No, not a right answer. That's where people get it wrong. I think with productivity software, it's a very difficult needle to thread. Because you have to have a point of view. "Productivity Construction Kit" is not an answer, because actually what it leads to is you putting the burden on the client, on the user and on the team to establish that, and not everybody is thoughtful enough or equipped enough to do that.

And I think when you see customers struggle with products you find that the diversity of options you have creates, well, less than an orderly, predictable exchange of information. So the threading the needle part is, you have to be opinionated enough and in the right places, but leave room for the individual user and ultimately the organization they are a part of to express their own approach to communication and collaboration and express that social contract.

Google Calendar is a good example of that, right? Calendar feels like the space in which to solve a lot of these things that you're talking about. If one of the core things we need to do is get a better understanding of where we are and who's available, Calendar seems like the place to do that, right? I feel like you guys are getting, if not more opinionated, then at least more, I don't know, tools-y about what you think a calendar can be.

Yes, tools-y in the sense that we know there's an opportunity, given what I told you about the time and attention management problem being crucial. Google Calendar has this unique role in being perhaps the only global-scale, personal and work calendar management service system of record. There's a responsibility, I guess, and an opportunity for us to continue to encourage people to not only use that, but to use it more effectively both in their own individual time management and in their time management across groups of people.

The best example to offer here is recurring events. I've long joked that you should be forced to do linear algebra before you are actually allowed to create a recurring event that involves multiple people. Possibly even just yourself. The reason for that is because exactly how far ahead can you plan?

You create a recurring event with the best of intentions that says, "I want to call my parents every week at 6 p.m. on Wednesday." Now, there's a segment of people for whom that proves to be very effective. They actually are rigorous enough about surrendering the entirety of their decision-making and their time management to a calendaring surface, digital or otherwise, that having that there helps. But to the vast, vast, vast majority of people, the calendar surface risks becoming a reminder of exactly how inconsistent and undependable you are as a human being.

And so how you approach the task is to go back to the sort of toolsy-ness of Google Calendar, because there are a million things you can add to the calendar to create the absolute perfect, most comprehensive time management thing ever. You could even employ AI to this effect and get pretty far. But it's only successful if it's actually impacting behavior and if the person is actually being able to truly manage their time. The impact that actually has is what we're interested in measuring, not just "did we give you a lot of knobs to make you feel good as some kind of GTD pro."

The first insight, back when it was G Suite, was to take all of these things that were single player and make them multiplayer, right? It still looks like an 8.5-by-11 inch sheet of paper when you open a Google Doc, but you can do it with another person. And that was a fundamentally new thing.

But now we're getting to the point where that thing is kind of table stakes. We're not all the way there yet, but that is clearly the future where all of this is going. And the next step, it seems like, is breaking the idea that all of those should be different products at all. That Workspace should be a thing, not a bunch of things.

Remember the show "Mad Men"? There's a picture I found on the internet of the set — no people — and you can see old-school intercom systems, typewriters, old-school inboxes, filing cabinets, a whole range of things. What we've done is we've digitized them, almost on a one-for-one basis. To be fair, there's been more innovation than that, but at heart, they're still treated in the same fashion.

We've now officially and irreparably broken away from that in a way that's going to create room for people to look at this problem space differently. It's by no means a finished job for us or anybody else. We still have to work hard to earn the right to be the choice of billions of people around the world, for all these important jobs. But yeah, I think we've kind of moved past that.

I don't want to have happy hours over video. There's a bunch of stuff about life in this particular period of time that people are going to look back and say, "Oh, that really sucked. Let's not go back to that." And I'm happy to turn the page on that.

I've been talking to people all year about, what are the KPIs for remote work? The KPIs for regular work have always been just, like, "ass in chair," which is not good. But these questions of what it means to know you're working hard and doing well — or even just doing well, period — seem different now. And there are all these questions about what managers want to know versus what employees want to know and want to share. So I'm curious both for you as a boss, and you as a product maker, how you think about that stuff right now.

I don't believe that metrics about communication volume, frequency, depth of organizational graph, how information flows through the organization — that you can actually productize those insights in a way that is sufficiently unique to a company in a way that makes it actionable.

You may say, "Javier, you spent 72 hours in meetings last week." And I don't know the judgment of whether that is good or bad. It's very subjective, right? In addition to the understandable creepiness of, how is this information being used? Is my performance being assessed from the point of view of how many minutes am I spending in email or how much multitasking I'm doing during times where I'm otherwise supposed to be in a meeting? Some cultures and organizations and job responsibilities will reward them. Others would point at that and say, "Pay attention, man."

I'd rather put more emphasis, for example, on the rhythm of work. I'm from Puerto Rico, I love music. And there's a rhythm at which work takes place, it's not a universally-described thing, not by industry, not by company. There are lots of rhythms, even within my own organization, teams that for one reason or another move faster or slower, make more heavy use of real-time communication versus asynchronous communication.

You don't just lay out the tools and say, "I don't know, pick what you need, go ahead!" You also don't just say, "Here's an adjustable wrench and a multi-headed screwdriver. Good luck!" You have to curate the set of tools that you offer. It's somewhere between an unbounded expanse, and a bike lane that says "This is the One True Way of collaborating." That's not not really for us or any other vendor to describe.

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