Google’s Sukkah Raises Workplace Questions


In the ultimate blending of ancient and modern, employees of the search engine giant Google are — for the first time — participating in the Festival of Booths this year. And, of course, they’re doing it Google-style.

On one of the balconies of Google’s Manhattan headquarters in Chelsea, two sukkahs, apparently constructed to halachic perfection, have been, ahem, pitched. Complete with an advanced videoconferencing system powered by Google Hangout, Android-themed hangings, lava lamps, exercise balls, Lego-building stations, a live-cam showing how many people are in the sukkah at any given time and, of course, walls plastered with the Google colors, the Google sukkahs are speeding the biblical hut into the high-tech 21st century.

Though the sukkahs were built with the primary intention of servicing Jewglers (the colloquial term for Google’s Jewish employees), other Googlers (Goyglers, if you will) are encouraged to drop by. QR codes have been posted around the sukkah, allowing employees to scan for more quick information about the religious history, symbolism and significance and sukkot. A lulav and etrog, the ritual palm branch and citrus fruit shaken on the holiday, will be on hand in both sukkahs for any and all Google employees to make us of.

A visit to the sukkah last Wednesday, on the eve of the holiday, revealed several additional details, including a scooter placed outside the entrance of each sukkah so Jewglers can easily commute between huts, a mock “Zagat 2014” plaque and a homemade hanging “Google” sign, built from Legos. Yakov Okshtein, a developer at Google, was responsible for handcrafting the Lego hangings during the company-wide sukkah decorating party that had taken place the day before.

“The same creativity that goes into computer programming goes into sukkah decorating,” said Okshtein, a kipa-wearing Jewgler from Fairlawn, N.J. Along with several other Jewglers, Okshtein was spending his lunch break ensuring that all last-minute decorations were in order.

Efforts to make the Sukkot holiday come alive at Google were headed by proud Jewgler Eleanor Carmeli. After working at Google’s California headquarters for several years before transferring to the New York office this year, Carmeli described the sukkah initiative as a “grassroots effort.” She networked with other Jewglers via an email listserv for Jewish employees across Google’s global offices.

“We entered the conversation with a sense of humility, realizing that Sukkot is much less known than other Jewish holidays,” said Carmeli, referring to the first time she approached management with the request. “There’s not a lot of space in New York City, so we went in with low expectations.”

Not only was the sukkah initiative given two-thumbs up, it sparked a trend across Google offices. This year, Google offices in Pittsburgh, Boston, Argentina, Dublin and the Mountain View global headquarters in California have all pitched sukkahs, with the New York team leading the way. The videoconference call system will allow Jewglers from one Google sukkah to see and talk with those in another.

“It seems we lit a fire under other Jewglers,” said Carmeli, who mentored Jewish employees in other offices about how to navigate limited space in order to procure a sukkah.

So-called “Culture Clubs” across Google create a wide range of events, from movie nights and silent discos to cultural celebrations like the Hindu festival of Diwali, Moon Festivals and the Chinese New Year. Employee groups including the Black Googlers Network, Women@, Gayglers, Indus Googler Network, and Asian Googlers Network have all found a home at Google.

Meghan Casserly, Google’s head of culture communications, said in an interview via email that Google believes a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures translates into better products and services.

“We’re working to create an unbiased and inclusive environment where all Googlers can thrive with a goal of making Google the best company at retaining and promoting women and minorities,” wrote Casserly.

“We’re encouraged to bring our whole selves to work,” said Carmeli. “If you’re a proud Jew at home, you can be a proud Jew in the office.” Jewglers were even encouraged to bring their families to the sukkah decorating party that took place right before the holiday.

Still, when it comes to encouraging diversity in the workplace, challenges persist even for leaders in the field. Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Manhattan-based Center for Talent Innovation, a consulting agency that specializes in workplace diversity, pointed out that over-accommodating one culture could be harmful.

“The largest challenge companies face is making a policy for one demographic, and then being questioned as to why they didn’t create an equally advantageous policy for a different demographic,” said Sherbin. Acquiescing to one special request might open a “Pandora’s box” for more requests, she added.

Danny Wildman, a New York Jewgler who helped in the process of getting the sukkah idea off the ground, wasn’t concerned that other employees would suspect favoritism.

“The culture here is so accommodating to different types of people that there’s no feeling of exclusion,” he said, citing the mass participation in the Gay Pride parade among Google employees every year. “There’s enough good feeling to go round.”

Companies with more limited resources, however, need to be extra vigilant about communicating openly with employees, said Sherbin. She gave the example of lactation rooms for mothers, a difficult request to accommodate in New York because of limited office space.

“Employers have to let employees know they care about their needs, even if they can’t provide them,” she said. “Employees need to perceive what goes on as fair.”

As special workplace accommodations become increasingly mainstream, employees are expecting more from their employers, Sherbin said.

“Hands down, the expectations of employees are increasing. From an economic perspective, this is a very good thing,” said Sherbin, who has a doctorate in economics. “The companies who can provide the most alluring benefits to their workers will get the best talent.”

Aside from the two sukkahs, Google provides many other benefits to their Jewish workers. Rachel Zax, a software engineer at the company, described some of her favorite Jewgler perks. Kosher food is provided three meals a day, and fridges are kept stocked with takeout meals from the noted kosher Midtown restaurant, Abigail’s. Last year, she taught Googlers of all ethnicities how to play dreidel during the company-wide Chanukah party.

“They’re so flexible when it comes to your work schedule,” said Zax, who started working at Google after graduating from Harvard in 2012. “Leaving early for Shabbat or the holidays is never even a question.”

Zax, who found out about the Google sukkah through the Jewgler email group, was looking forward to having a place to eat her kosher meals during the holiday, which ends Friday.

“It’s so cool — you’re at work, eating hot kosher food, with a sukkah over your head,” she said. “Gone are the days when going to work meant having to compromise on your religion.”