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The Google Philharmonic
Why orchestras should take a page out of Google's business philosophy handbook.

by Holly Mulcahy
December 7, 2009

A few months back I published an article that examined elements from Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated. One of Colvin's key points was how companies cultivate creativity and then use it to create better and more productive employees. Colvin used Google as one of his examples and wrote extensively about their philosophy behind fostering a very employee-friendly work environment and how it promotes and maintains productivity.

Colvin's example made me want to learn even more about Google. They provide so much to workers, I was secretly hoping to find an in-house orchestra in which I could apply. Among the list of benefits Google offers employees is free organic cuisine, excellent health care benefits, the ability to bring dogs to the office, the list goes on. But one of my favorite benefits was their 20% of work time per week in which engineers are allowed to use for whatever projects they are passionate about. For Google, the 20% time has allowed for employees to come up with some of Google's most popular added features as well as finding new ways of making Google's service better, faster, and more fun.

After returning Talent is Overrated to my library, I checked out The Google Story by David A. Vise. In this book, readers are guided through Google's life (or at least up through when the book was published) to see why Google goes to great lengths to treat their employees so well. Throughout the book, I kept wondering why orchestras can't adopt some of these principles.

A dispensable cog in an irrelevant wheel.

For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with an orchestra musician's workplace, it isn't uncommon for openings to attract dozens or even hundreds of applicants. In one of my instances, after competing with more than 100 other violinists for a single position as "section first violin," I felt pretty good. I had just won a decent, full-time orchestra job that 99 other violinists desperately wanted. Like so many other musicians that succeed in auditions, the experience made me feel useful, necessary, needed, and wanted in that orchestra. But within a month of starting the position, it became clear that my outlook was misplaced and my feelings of being a contributing member of the organization were replaced by feeling expendable. All too frequently, I was even told that "You can and will be easily replaced."

It wasn't just me, most of my musician colleagues and even staff members were made to feel marginalized after beginning their jobs with the orchestra. And the repeating stanza of "You can and will be easily replaced" reinforces feelings of indifference. Protests are frequently met with a hostile lack of concern from upper management.

"You do know there are over 100 people that want your job, don't you?," said one of my former upper managers. "It is simple supply and demand and you simply aren't valuable, so shut up."

I know from experience, both musicians and staff are very passionate about their job. They want to help make things better but all too often, offers of help or suggestions are pushed aside by upper management as quickly as a child can be dismissed at a dinner conversation. This only fosters a relationship that has one side blaming the other for everything bad that happens. Needless to say, any feeling of joint ownership is demolished in this sort of workplace.  This only motivates musicians to audition elsewhere, and encourages talented staff to interview for other positions where they may feel useful.

Reading Vise's book made it simple to understand the reason Google goes out of its way to treat employees so well: they want to keep the talent they find. As Vice points out, it's not just the outstanding benefits and pay that contributes to Google's employee's job satisfaction, it's a creative outlet that actually matters to the worker and the company. And in turn, workers are less inclined to leave, the talent stays within Google, and they build a stronger company as a whole.

Of course, comparing a nonprofit arts system to a Fortune 500 company might seem a bit silly. After all, no orchestra will have the sort of money available to replicate all of the benefits Google offers. But taking certain aspects of the Google philosophy to heart in creating the work culture would definitely create a stronger and healthier symphony orchestra.

Keeping talent in an orchestra should be at the top of the list in mission goals. It goes beyond money, although that really helps. So often, upper management forgets that beyond a paycheck, there is purpose and pride involved in cultivating a happy and productive employee.

What would happen if an overworked symphony staff was presented with some choices like Google offers? Would they devote 20% of their time to finding solutions to institutional problems using their own creativity? Could they better use a whole Friday walking around their child's school talking to teachers at lunch break about the new daddy-daughter concert their co-worker dreamed up on their 20% time?

What about the musician whose time at work is split between 25 hour week of rehearsals and 20+ hours of home practice? Could they benefit or even want to partake in a 20% time? It might be harder, but I'd bet if a musician could take off an "in-school" concert to play their own recital at a legal office lunch hour, there might be some takers.

I've experienced situations where managers have offered some flexibility with employee sponsored projects but in each of these cases it has been held out as a limited offering. Only a handful of musicians were allowed to pursue personal projects and they were made to pitch ideas that upper managers selected. All this did was create resentment among musicians and after a short time, the only musicians pitching ideas were those who had projects selected earlier.

There is no simple fix to the melancholy I see in various orchestral groups. Money is obviously in short supply, but in order to push through these modern day challenges, some good old fashion creativity needs to start somewhere.

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