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Does Google’s 20% time work?


Google’s 20% time has gained a lot of attention over recent years. Employees can take up to one day a week to work on something unrelated to their work, something they are passionate about. But does it work?

In asking that question, we have split it in two: how does it work and does it actually work? The latter can be interpreted to mean does it work for the employee and does it work for Google?

How does it work?

As an employee incentive, Innovation Time Off (as it is formally known) can be taken by any member of staff. Some people save it up so it can all be used at once, some don’t take it at all. It has certainly caused a stir and marked Google out, yet again, as an innovative company that understands what clever people need to stay inspired at work. Apple and LinkedIn followed suit. Apple called theirs “Blue Sky” and lets employees take two weeks to work on projects outside their normal responsibilities. Software company Atlassian openly calls their programme ‘20% time’.

Does it actually work?

To answer this, you have to consider what the objective is. Is it about focusing minds for four days a week? Is it a gimmick that doesn’t get used but sounds great in theory? Is it a clever way for Google to get other projects off the ground, things that they might not otherwise give time for? This means getting people to do the groundwork to market research and other bits, then Google reaps benefits when it appears a viable project.

To look at it another way, Google knows it employs very talented people with active minds, and, like many incentive schemes, this is aimed at retaining those important people.

Many blogs about it, some from former Google staff, give the impression it is rarely used for anything other than Google-related projects, albeit ones that have not passed the conception stage. Others say it is rarely used because people are too busy with their regular work and career progression takes that (and not 20% time) into account.

Paul Buchheit used 20% time to come up with Gmail – an example of how it can work for the employee, who got the freedom to come up with and implement a great idea, and the company, which now reportedly has 400million+ users on its email system.

Buchheit says on his blog: “This is where Google’s ‘20% time’ comes in — if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of ‘20%’ is not the time, but rather the ‘license’ it gives to work on things that ‘aren’t important’.”

Dion Almaer said of the incentive:  “It wasn’t about the time. In fact, I didn’t actually know that many people who took the time! … 20% time means that sparks of genius can happen. If you copy anything about it, ignore the ‘time’ part, and go with the open culture part.”

Some people have made it work and the career-focused examples which have resulted in new Google innovations are the ones we hear about. Undoubtedly, having the option there is an open and attractive way of operating.

Giving employees time away from work to explore their own interests is not a new thing. Sabbaticals are a form of leave granted by your a employer for up to a year, with the job kept open for the employees return at an agreed time. Recession apparently made these popular back in 2009, when it meant a company could save on salary during the sabbatical.

Often seen as the lower-risk way of fulfilling a goal such as travelling or writing a book without throwing in the job, it could be seen as a way of thwarting career progress in the same way as taking up 20% time: how can you be in line for promotion when you are not 100% committed to the job you already have?

If your objective is to balance work and personal life, 20% time could be ideal for you. If your main objective is rapid promotion, the jury is out on whether companies innovative enough to offer 20% time actually commit to progressing individuals for their personal use of it.

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