Google. It’s one of the most common household words in modern society, and yet for a company that is used by most of us essentially as an algorithm, it tends to trigger a highly emotional response when overheard. It’s a dream job for college students nearing graduation, a highly coveted invitation to lunch by friends and colleagues who work near campus, and the bane of existence for those who produce content for the Internet. For several years, most of the public has seen quick glimpses of the life of those who work at Google: offices filled with primary colors, couches, large kitchens, massage chairs, and even hammocks. There’s no doubt that working at Google comes with perks; not only does Google provide the traditional benefits like health insurance and extremely competitive pay, but Googlers are treated to free breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, free on-site massages, car detailing, on-site fitness centers, and even napping pods.

It’s almost as if you could live on campus and never leave. Google’s motto is (apparently) “Don’t be evil,” and it goes out of its way, every day, to ensure Googlers live extremely well on campus. But what is this life really like?

One software engineer on the Mountain View campus, who is married with an 18-month-old son, says that these perks encourage a work-life balance. For example, he comes into the office around 9 a.m., and may leave for salsa dancing classes with other Googlers at 2 p.m. He then comes back, codes for a few hours, then may go to a bar on campus with some colleagues, return to work, and then go home around 7 p.m. He says he typically gets back to work, while at home, around 10 p.m. To him, this is the epitome of Google’s work-life balance, though the amount of personal life in his day amounts to less than three hours with his family, assuming the rest of the time is spent sleeping.

Other Googlers do use the full features of the campus to essentially live and breathe Google, ensuring they stay healthy and fit with Google’s exceptional dining facilities, on-site gyms, and medical teams while demonstrating a devout work ethic. It’s no secret that one of the biggest perks of Google is the food — in fact, some warn new hires of the “Google 15” due to the massive options, especially at the Mountain View campus. Google features full showers and locker rooms, enabling Googlers to work as hard as they want, potentially for days at a time. A former contractor for Google noted that many of the engineers and sales teams “are always pushing themselves and each other. I saw a lot of really determined, competitive people there,” to the point that they would stay on campus for several days at a time.

Brilliantly, Google has designed all of its offices so its employees can stay at work overnight, without having to worry about a thing — such as their hunger, health, or hygiene.

What It's Really Like to Work at Google

That is, unless you have a family. The software engineer I spoke with usually makes the choice to go home, as do the members of his team. He notes that “there are a large collection of people who have families on [his] team.” However, he also explains that at Google, “your compensation is correlated to the amount of effort you can put in.” While he says there is no direct pressure to conform to “crazy hours,” he hints at the reason he lives a Google-centric life: His pay is directly related to the amount of time he spends with Google. For those who can’t keep up with the demand, they simply have no choice but to leave, as previous (and notably older) Google employees have done when they must make the choice between raising a family or getting a raise. (I personally know at least one former Seattle-area Googler who quit under similar circumstances after being forced to either choose seeing his newborn less, or receive a demotion if he didn’t travel more.)

But is Google really that bad? For those who strive for work-life integration, rather than crave work-life balance, the Google lifestyle seems to truly be a dream. The software engineer I spoke with highlighted that there really are “no hindrances to leave campus, as Google wants to make sure that [it] can provide you with the means to get things done without knocking you out of [the] productivity zone.” Employees can punctuate their day (like he does with salsa classes) and grab food, play a game of pool, or nap as needed. He said that “as an engineer you can get into the zone, but it’s hard to get back into it if you’re knocked out.” He said that at Google, the design of the campus and the company benefits are definitely a “way to get the most out of employees,” allowing Googlers the mental breaks they need to be the most productive.

Google also ensures its employees that it’s not all work, and no play. In fact, this might be the biggest misconception of Google employees. Not only does the office look fun; it is fun. The engineer told me that alcohol is extremely prevalent on campus, complete with several tiki bars. He said that at these bars there are “glasses of wine and scotch available, and if you try hard enough, you can always find alcohol” somewhere on campus.

Drinking? While working? While you might crack a beer on your desk at 4 p.m. on a Friday, drinking is just part of the job at Google. The software engineer even revealed that “some managers even pressure their teams to drink.” Googlers also celebrate a “TGIF” every Friday, where even more booze flows freely. During these sessions, a New York Times best-selling author might speak, or Lady Gaga might perform, with Googlers filling the cafeterias of multiple buildings to listen and watch. Other times, it’s a very casual happy hour that often lasts late into the evening — all while never leaving the cozy confines of their home away from home. Luckily for these Googlers, the Mountain View campus is now starting to serve meals on weekends. (Hangover brunch, anyone?)

Google’s closed doors have cultured an open environment internally that has empowered its employees — at least the ones who can afford to live and breathe the search behemoth — to speak their minds. The problem is that Google is growing in not only in its own power, but in size, and in age. Young, unmarried Googlers can easily choose to work more than those who are older with kids and are being compensated accordingly — which forces those with more tried and proven talent to join other corporations. Google is also losing its agility as it grows — the perks now come with red tape and decisions are harder to make by management. Google is no longer a fun, whimsical startup with a few young kids with big ideas. In fact, some town hall meetings about controversial decisions, such as the Google+ real names policy, get so heated that discussions between other Googlers erupt nearly to the point of physical violence (which is notably not tolerated).

Working at Google is a choice to eat, sleep, and breathe Google. It’s a conscious decision, and also an emotional choice for each employee. While we as consumers, dream-job seekers, and bloggers each feel a specific way about Google, we merely enjoy a Doodle or stress about changes to the algorithm. However, those inside the castle walls feel nothing but Google, and only because of Google.

And while those from both the inside and outside see an office that is, according to that software engineer, “an area that feels organic and free flowing so you don’t feel like a cog in a machine,” that is exactly the antithesis of the culture that Google has bred. While employees rave about the amount of alcohol available, the free food, and the lack of hindrances to leaving campuses — and yet say they are a free moving object — it’s hard to deny that working for Google sounds like being a part of, well, something else.

The only real question is: Where is the Kool-Aid?

Google Office image via albertbredenhann.