version 2, draft 2

Would 20% Time Work In Your Organisation?

In recent years there has been considerable talk and discussion about effective ways to inspire and motivate employees to do great things at work.  Intrinsic factors such as giving employees meaningful work and control over how that work is conducted are popular means of doing that.

What about free time?  After all, in our hectic lives, we are often running around so much that time becomes an increasingly precious commodity.  This is especially so at work, where there has been considerable evidence highlighting the valuable role ’down time’ can play in innovation and creativity.

The rise of 20% time

Indeed, it is just this kind of thinking that has prompted a number of companies down the years to offer employees variations on 20% time. This concept, first pioneered by 3M, awards employees a percentage of their working week to undertake whatever tasks they wish.

The concept has been most famously adopted by Google, for whom Gmail has been a direct result of employees 20% time. The benefits of it are multiple, but include:

  • Better employee engagement, as it allows employees to work on things that really excite them
  • Improved innovation, as it gives people time to work on those projects that have always bugged them
  • Greater collaboration, as it gives people sufficient time to help colleagues with their problems

A shift away from industrial management

It all represents a rather significant shift in thinking.  After all, industrial era management prescribes what we do pretty tightly. Job descriptions detail our tasks, which are then measured via appraisal systems and rewarded via bonuses. That’s great when management knows best, but in a complex world, that often isn’t the case.

Variations on 20% time have emerged as the concept has taken root. One such is the Hack Day, where employees are encouraged to devote a period of time (usually a day), to work on a particular problem with colleagues from across the organisation.

Implementing 20% time

Suffice to say, the biggest challenge when looking to implement this kind of approach is finding the time. After all, most employees are already snowed under as it is, how can a big chunk of time be found for them to go off and work on their own projects?

If you want to give this a go in your own organisation, here are a few questions that you can ask to test the waters a bit.

  1. Is there sufficient slack in your employees schedules?  Be honest here.  If employees are already running at full gas, then not only is it going to be a struggle to implement 20% time, but it also going to be tough to do any kind of collaborative work.
  2. What do you value in your organisation?  I’m sure we’ve all seen organisations where putting in ’face time’ is what gets you ahead.  ’Free time’ in such a culture is going to come across as though you’re slacking.  If that is your culture, then this isn’t for you.
  3. How do you assess work?  20% time is largely concerned with innovation.  Are you the kind of organisation that looks down on failure?  If you are, then this is unlikely to be for you, because any kind of innovation will likely result in a degree of failure. If your bosses don’t support what you’re doing, then you’re unlikely to do it.

If you can answer those questions in a positive way however, then 20% time may be for you.


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