Should Your Business Offer Google’s “20% Time”?

The very thought of giving employees paid time to work on anything they want – or even nothing at all – is enough to make most business owners cringe.  But should it?  This phenomenon, which is sweeping across corporate America, stems from Google’s pioneering program known as “20% Time.”

The 20% refers to the portion of work hours in which employees at Google can work on anything they’d like (and yes, there are some exceptions). And though it sounds far-fetched, be aware that Google has publicly stated that some of its best inventions come from the advances made by employees during their 20% time.

But how did such a unique policy get started?  And should you consider adopting something similar within your own company?  Let’s start from the beginning…

Gaining a Foothold on the Market

Originally launched as yet another web directory, Google has single-handedly revolutionized the way we search the internet. As few as ten years ago, we called this process “surfing” the net because the search results we had access to were sketchy at best.  By carefully refining the way in which websites were ranked in the search engine results page (SERPs), Google was able to successfully improve both the quality and relativity of search results.

Throughout this process, Google was transformed from a small company started by two Stanford students to an internet wide game changer.  And just as they have changed the way we search, they’ve also changed the way we work. Although they aren’t technically the first to launch a “20% time” program (that honor goes to 3M, which has been offering similar perks as far back as 1939), Google’s unique implementation has had the most well-known and well-recorded results when it comes to offering employees time to work on their own projects.

A Closer Look at 20% Time

Getting straight to it, Google’s 20% time is a program that allows employees to spend about eight hours a week to work on new projects that could benefit the company. Although similar programs have been in existences for some time, Google’s uniquely permissive company culture has allowed this employment benefit to become a huge success. Former and current Google employees often speak highly of this somewhat-unofficial program, with numerous sources naming beloved programs like Gmail as having been born during this “free” time.

Should Your Company Offer a Similar Program?

Of course, just because something works for Google doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll work for your company. The radical changes in management and leadership philosophy needed to completely embrace a similar program may not be right for your organization. This is also not the type of program that will succeed for companies that barely have enough staff to get work completed as it is.

However, companies that focus on creativity and innovation, and that reward forward-thinking, independent employees may have the perfect environment in which this type of program can flourish.

A Few Perks of Offering 20% Time

Although everything you’ve been taught to this point is likely telling you to run far away from such a policy, taking a few moments to consider the benefits of this type of program is certainly a worthwhile exercise. The following are just a few of the reasons that you should consider integrating this type of program.

  • As many as 50% of Google’s current service offerings have their roots in the company’s 20% time, a clear indication that this type of program can be beneficial to business owners and managers who value innovation.
  • Allowing employees to choose their projects ensure that they’re passionate about their work – and passion equals productivity!
  • Most companies experience wasted time each day anyways, due to inefficiency and human nature. Incorporating this type of program at least allows your employees to slack off productively.

Essentially, if you run a business that is driven by or that drives innovation, a 20% time offering or similar program could be an advantageous move for your company.

Pitfalls of This Program

Of course, 20% time programs aren’t all rainbows and sunshine.  A quote featured in “Wired Magazine” does a great job of summarizing the potential pitfalls of 20% time:

Wired interviewer: “How do people actually do 20 percent time? How do people actually figure out a way to actually get 20 percent of their time for that without working on weekends?”

Schmidt: “They work on weekends.”

Essentially, Schmidt is alluding to the complete cultural difference of Google’s employees. Both their structure and available amenities – including everything from professionally-prepared meals to on-site dry cleaning – make it comfortable to come to work early and stay late.

Even though it should go without saying, it’s clear that not every company can handle a program like this. If your company’s culture is very strict and continues to run under “baby boomer” guidelines, steering clear of this type of opportunity may be best for you. This is also not a program for companies that focus on mass production, general labor or that are understaffed.

The following are a few other reasons why 20% time may not be right for your company:

  • Employees may be expected to work more hours to accomplish both their workload and their 20% time projects, leading to faster burnout.
  • Efficiency in production-driven jobs will suffer, resulting in decreased sales and profits.
  • Additional staff and guidelines may be needed to encourage and monitor the development of new ideas through these programs – a luxury that not all companies have to spare.

Truly, the success of any program like this relies entirely upon the quality of your staff. The actual percentage of time you allot for innovation activities – if any – is your decision and should be based upon what works for your company (and not just what makes sense for Google).

Every business is different, so if you intend to incorporate this type of program, avoid using a generic template and implement guidelines that make sense for your unique situation instead.

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