Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email blast to his 100,000 or so employees, cutting back the company’s defining all-hands meeting known as TGIF. The famous free-for-alls had epitomized the company’s egalitarian ethos, a place where employees and leaders could talk freely about nearly anything. More recently, however, the biweekly meeting had become fraught as it increasingly reflected Google’s tensions as opposed to its aspirations. “It’s not working in its current form,” Pichai said of what was once the hallmark of Google culture. In 2020, he declared, the meetings would be limited to once a month, and they would be more constrained affairs, sticking to “product and business strategy.” Don’t Be Evil has changed to Don’t Ask Me Anything.
With that, Pichai not only ended an era at Google, he symbolically closed the shutters on a dream held widely in the tech world—that one can scale a company to global ubiquity while maintaining the camaraderie of an idealistic clan.
Pichai cited decreased attendance rates, the difficulty of running a real-time gathering across time zones, and an uptick in meetings among big product groups like Cloud or YouTube. His most resonant reason, however, was that Google employees could no longer be trusted to keep matters confidential. He cited “a coordinated effort to share our conversations outside of the company after every TGIF … it has affected our ability to use TGIF as a forum for candid conversations on important topics.” He also noted that while many want to hear about product launches and business strategies, some attend to “hear answers on other topics.” It seems obvious he was referring to recent moments when aggrieved employees registered objections to Google’s policies and missteps—on developing a search engine for China, bestowing millions of dollars to executives charged with sexual misconduct, or hiring a former Homeland Security apparatchik. Pichai says Google may address such issues in specific town-hall meetings when warranted.
Google isn’t the only company to rein in its fora because not everyone on its team is on its team. Facebook recently had its own issues with its weekly all-hands, where Mark Zuckerberg fields questions from his own far-flung workforce. A July session of its weekly meeting leaked to Casey Newton of The Verge, who published it in its entirety. Zuckerberg not only acknowledged the authenticity of the leak but, on very little notice, decided to publicly live-stream the next week’s all-hands. Which sort of meant that it was no longer an internal meeting, but a kind of performance version of one. Facebook, too, is reconsidering its all-hands strategy.
The loss of TGIF is huge. The ability to ask the boss any question in a timely fashion was a powerful symbol of employee empowerment. The practice began when Google was relatively tiny, as a relaxed session—beer was served!—where cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took queries, no matter how challenging, from anyone who cared to ask. The company even invented an app that allowed employees to rank potential questions, so pressing ones would get precedence.
When I was writing a book about Google some years ago, I sat in on several TGIFs, held in the cavernous Charlie’s Cafe on the Mountain View campus. They followed a format that became a template for dozens of new companies thereafter. First was a welcoming ceremony of new employees (at peak a few dozen of them might attend), who were required to wear their “Noogler” beanies—colorful caps with plastic propellers on top. Then there would be news and announcements, followed by a presentation or demo by one or more groups. A new product or policy initiative might get announced, even if its real-world unveiling was months off. The company was confident that news would not leak out, and it didn’t. (For example, Google shared information that it was working on its own browser, Chrome, over a year before it actually launched.)
As Google grew, TGIF evolved. Originally a Friday afternoon end-of-week celebration, several years ago it moved to Thursdays so that those across the globe wouldn’t have to tune in on the weekend. And about a year ago it switched from weekly to biweekly. But very little else changed. Even as they did fewer public appearances, cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin regularly led the sessions. The friendly audience relaxed them, and they joked their way through things. More recently, when Page and Brin officially became Alphabet executives and Pichai ran the TGIFs, they would still sometimes drop in—kind of a Proof of Life that the executives, especially the publicity-shy Page, were still around.
Though Google didn’t invent the phenomenon of a weekly all-hands, the success of TGIF made it a much-emulated practice. Facebook held its meeting from the start; Zuckerberg would end by shouting “Domination!” Twitter had a version called Tea Time. You’d probably be hard pressed to find a successful startup or unicorn that didn’t have such a session. What made the weekly all-hands so attractive was its power to bind a workforce to a shared mission. The fact that such meetings could continue when the head count reached five figures and more reflected a crazy optimism that, with the right kind of culture, the physics of corporate alienation could be defied.
Now we’ve learned—no surprise—that physics wins. The big problems of these big companies have led employees to more aggressively question their bosses, and in some cases even sabotage them by leaking the secrets shared in these meetings. As any reader of spy novels can tell you, the presence of moles in an organization is a morale-killer. It also harshes the corporate mellow when workers use putatively feel-good meetings to stage hostile confrontations with their leaders on an increasing number of sore points. In earlier times, employees tended to express their gripes with the expectation that leaders and workers were colleagues, too evolved to get hung up on power disparities. Now, with giant corporations worrying more about market dominance and regulators than about feel-good missions, that kumbaya sensibility is gone.
That’s why, when Google said Thank Goodness It’s Finished, it ended a lot more than a weekly meeting. Winter has come to Silicon Valley. And no beer for you.