Google’s Once Happy Offices Feel the Chill of Layoffs

When Diane Hirsh Theriault’s co-worker returned from lunch to Google’s Cambridge, Mass., office one afternoon in October, his work badge couldn’t open a turnstile. He quickly realized it was a sign that he had been laid off.

Dr. Hirsh Theriault soon learned that most of her fellow Google News engineers in Cambridge had also lost their jobs. More than 40 people in the news division were cut, a union at the company said, though a number of them were later offered jobs elsewhere inside Google.

Dr. Hirsh Theriault’s experience is increasingly common at Google, where rolling job cuts in recent months, after a year of significant layoffs, have employees on edge. The layoffs have slowed down projects and prompted employees to spend working hours trying to learn which work groups have been hit and who could be next, said 10 current and former Google employees, including some who asked for anonymity so they could speak candidly about their jobs.

What’s more, the layoffs have shifted the narrative that long defined working at Google — that it was more of a tinker’ community than a workaday office, where creativity and thinking out of the box was encouraged. That it was a fun, different kind of place to work.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, said more than a year ago that the company would cull 12,000 jobs, or 6 percent of the work force, describing it as “a difficult decision to set us up for the future.”

Those cuts have trickled into this year in what Mr. Pichai said could be much smaller, rolling layoffs throughout the year. Since early January, the company has cut more than a thousand jobs, affecting its ad sales division, YouTube and employees working on the company’s voice-operated assistant.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has said it is trying to shed expenses to pay for its growing investment in artificial intelligence. And Google is trying to reduce layers of bureaucracy so that employees can focus on the biggest company priorities, said Courtenay Mencini, a Google spokeswoman. The company added that it was not conducting a companywide layoff, and that reorganizations were part of the normal course of business.

“The reality is that to create the capacity for this investment, we have to make tough choices,” Mr. Pichai wrote in a note to employees on Jan. 17. For some divisions, “this means reorganizing and, in some cases, eliminating roles.” Teams could still cut additional roles throughout the year, he added.

Employees say the workplace mood has turned glum. While Google has shifted into overdrive to develop artificial intelligence products and keep pace with competitors like Microsoft and the start-up OpenAI, some of the humans that build the company’s technology feel less important.

Now “the buildings are half empty at 4:30,” Dr. Hirsh Theriault wrote in a LinkedIn post. “I know a lot of people, myself included, who used to happily do extra work evenings and weekends to get the demo done or just out of boredom. That’s gone.”

Google’s layoffs have been smaller than those at some other big tech companies like Meta. And as a percentage of the company’s total work force, they are far smaller than recent cuts at companies like Xerox and the livestreaming platform Twitch. Google’s full-time work force was 182,502 at the end of 2023, just 4 percent smaller than at the end of 2022. On Tuesday, the company said it had a $20.7 billion profit in the last quarter of 2023, up 52 percent from a year earlier.

But Google’s job cuts have accompanied broader changes in how the company operated as it reshuffled work groups and removed management layers. Workers complain that reorganization has been chaotically carried out and poorly communicated.

When YouTube laid off one of its vendor manager teams, which are responsible for approving purchase orders so that content moderation firms get paid, the company did not notify other groups that rely on the team, one person said, though some of the workers were offered the chance to get their jobs back.

When layoffs resumed in January, a Google worker in Switzerland started an internal document for employees to track the job cuts since the company has said little to them about where it is making the cuts. The document has become an essential source of information, employees said, along with news reports, social media and the old-fashioned office rumor mill.

“From an H.R. standpoint, this is a nightmare,” said Meghan M. Biro, whose firm, TalentCulture, creates content about best practices in human resources. “It completely reverses their image as a desirable employer.”

Google said leaders had communicated clearly to teams when they were undergoing changes.

Workers warned in interviews that some of the cuts could prove disruptive to parts of the business already struggling to complete thorny tasks. In January, Google cut hundreds of employees from its core engineering organization, responsible for its infrastructure and tools used across the company.

One of the core division’s main priorities is helping Google comply with the European Digital Markets Act when the law goes into effect on March 6. The law will make tech giants show consumers their choices for online services, such as web browsers, and force them to get consent to share user data within the company. But employees working on the efforts fear that the company is behind schedule and that it could be difficult for Google to be in full compliance by the deadline, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

Google said it had already started rolling out consent screens to European users in January and expected to introduce more changes ahead of the deadline. It added that the recent job reductions in its core division would not affect the timing.

Google employees were for a long time encouraged to work on experimental projects. But doing something experimental has over the last year proved to be risky, said four workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The company has all but shuttered Area 120, its in-house incubator that tried to develop new products and services, and altered the strategy of X, a “moonshot factory” that tried to build new companies.

Google said employees were constantly doing “extraordinarily innovative, ambitious things across the company.”

Employees are more reluctant to ask for the so-called 20 percent, or side, projects, which used to be a way to explore an idea outside their regular work that they found compelling, five people said. That was a regrettable shift for Rupert Breheny, who spent 16 years at Google, mostly in Zurich, working on products like Google Street View in Maps.

“The thing that took you to Google was passion,” said Mr. Breheny, who was laid off last summer. “You could have fun making stuff. It stayed like that for a long time.”