Google was once again named the best company in the United States to work for in 2017, in Fortune Magazine’s widely-watched ranking.
Every time Google gets a mention, another round of speculation starts: what makes the company a favorite of many employees? Some people say it’s the culture; some say it’s the slides, free food, and bright colors.
We propose another reason.
One of Google’s most famous employee perks is that employees can use 20% of their time to work on individual projects, giving employees time to maintain work productivity while avoiding burn out.
And it’s paid off: that one unstructured day a week has led to some of the Google’s most successful and profitable innovations — Gmail, Google News, AdSense, Google Reader, among many others.
In their 2004 founders’ letter, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin even explicitly cited the ‘20% time’ policy, saying that when employees are “free to pursue projects they are passionate about and think will benefit Google,” it can lead to innovation that becomes a core part of the company’s identity.
And it can work for you.
Doing something you like makes your work better
With the ‘20% time’ policy as well as on-site chefs and doctors, Google knows how to make employees “feel special, pampered, stimulated, well-fed — and eager to work hard,” said Fortune in its 100 best companies to work for in 2017 listing on March 9.
‘20% time’ in particular has been widely imitated by other organizations.
In 2012, Apple introduced the ‘Blue Sky’ perk for select employees to spend a “few weeks” of their time on pet projects.
LinkedIn created InCubator for employees to spend 30 to 90 days to develop individual prototypes that could be judged and tested later.
It’s even moved beyond Silicon Valley. Educator A.J. Juliani authored a book on how you could adopt 20% time to classrooms and “give our students a voice in their own learning path, and allow them to go into depth in subjects that we may skim over in our curriculum.”
When 20% time becomes 120% of your time
Despite all the acclaim and adoption ‘20% time’ received, in 2013, Quartz reported that even Google itself effectively killed the perk off because what had once been a right for all employees, now required manager approval. And since managers are judged by the productivity of their teams through an internal analytics system that doesn’t take ‘20% time’ into account, they are discouraged from signing off on the perk.
As one anonymous Googler put it, “I work at Google and still have 20% time. It’s called Saturday.”
Ex-Yahoo CEO and former Googler Marissa Meyer once bluntly told her Yahoo employees seeking the perk that, “I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time.” Google later disputed the Quartz report, saying 20% time off was “alive and well.”
But in the back-and-forth between the company line and what anonymous and public Google employees were saying, what becomes clear is the paradox that if you wanted that free time off, you would need to work for it; the rest of your work won’t wait.
But for driven, creative employees who need unstructured time to incubate their wild ideas, they’ll find a way.
Ryan Tate, who authored “The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules Drive Success in Business,” is still a believer in the concept: “20% time has always operated on a somewhat ad hoc basis, providing an outlet for the company’s brightest, most restless, and most persistent employees — for people determined to see an idea through to completion, come hell or high water.”
Tate’s key point: having the idea doesn’t make 20% time the perfect answer. You still need to see the project through to completion. Gmail was a ‘20% time’ idea from engineer Paul Buchheit, but it still took him two and a half years to convince the company that there was value in moving beyond search.
If 20% time is too much, try 10% or just 5%
Despite the disputed reputation 20% time now has, I still believe in its value. Earlier this year, I attended a transformative leadership seminar Poynter created for digital journalists from diverse backgrounds.
One of the lectures I listened to was given by Poynter’s Katie Hawkins-Gaar, where I first learned about the concept of 20% time. In a newsroom world of deadlines and bottom lines, 20% time can be too much of a sell. An entire day in the news cycle can mean missing something huge.
So Hawkins-Garr participated in a smaller trial run of 5% time at CNN iReport. That’s only two hours.
Those two hours proved invaluable for reflection, brainstorming and team morale.
Ideas are the best currency in any organization, and using any version of 20% time off empowers individuals to experiment. That’s what those hours can give us — space and time to try and fail with all your wild ideas until they’re ready to see the light of day.
This article was originally published on March 9, 2017.