Free-Thinking Time May Come at a Cost

Giving employees time to develop side projects may not be beneficial for every organization, and for some technology-driven companies, allowing employees to occupy a fifth of their time with such endeavors will be an unsustainable strategy if the side projects do not align with companywide goals.

The conversation started in light of recent reports that Google’s “20 percent time,” which allows its employees to take one day a week to work on side projects, may be more restricted, and many organizations are questioning whether a competitive business can afford to allow its employees to devote a fraction of their work time to personal projects.

Organizations implementing discretionary time for their employees hope it will spur innovation, but without alignment with core business goals, companies are not making the best use of their employees’ personal-time allotment, according to Kathy Gersch, executive vice president at management consultancy Kotter International.

“It’s effective to allow people to step up into a leadership role and innovate,” Gersch said. “It enables the individual to go outside of their everyday role in ways that may not be used in their day jobs. It’s only ineffective if it’s not well-led at the top. Twenty percent time doesn’t necessarily mean you get 20 percent free time to do whatever you want. It’s about engaging people to innovate within the framework of an overall goal.”

Companies aligning an employee’s free-thinking time with an organization’s strategic goals encourage workers to make creativity part of the corporate development process, and it is this form of harnessed innovative thinking that could potentially drive a company in a targeted, new direction, Gersch said.

To develop a sustainable development model that incorporates some form of free-thinking time, a company must first provide its employees with a framework for their personal projects, Gersch said. “Allow the network of people to work together on ideas and provide them with, for lack of a better term, some light infrastructure.”

For example, organizations can support an employee’s personal projects through assigning project teams and sharing news of the teams’ progress with other employees, Gersch said. This creates momentum surrounding an idea and can reward those that promote and reinforce the company’s vision.

Once an organization decides to implement some form of discretionary time, it should encourage employees to make mistakes and learn from them, according to Stephen Balzac, author of the upcoming book “Organizational Psychology for Managers.”

“A company has to be willing to be wrong a lot,” Balzac said. “You can’t punish people for being wrong. Often, what we see is a finished product, and we didn’t see all the work and pain that went into it. You need to be willing to go down blind alleys to find innovation. Successful innovation is planning to fail.”

Many technology companies began implementing some form of Google’s 20 percent time model, including HP’s 10 percent time and Yahoo’s Hack Day, because standout examples highlight the types of innovation that can occur as a result of implementing personal project time.

Most notably, Google reported Gmail, Google News and Google Talk to be among the litany of products emerging from its 20 percent time strategy.

In addition to Google, manufacturing company 3M, an early adopter of offering employees creative time, reports the Post-It Note was thought of while 3M scientist Art Fry was using his “15 percent time” to hatch his own idea in 1974.

For large companies with vast resources, allowing employees to work on personal projects while on the clock serves as an incubator for new ideas and encourages internal creativity if executed properly, Balzac said.

“Companies get more and more focused on what they do really well, and it may blind them to creative breakthroughs,” Balzac said. “In environments where the world is changing, you never know when today’s bad idea will be tomorrow’s big success. Having a constant stream of ideas is the only way to have a steady stream of success.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.