Whatever Happened to 20% Time?

It’s common knowledge that innovation is tied directly to creativity. Companies and organizations that foster creativity create a well of new ideas that can spur growth. Creative environments strengthen morale, engagement and productivity among employees. Or so we’re told.

One of the more famous programs aimed at promoting creativity was adopted by Google. Known as “20% Time,” it invites employees to allot 20 percent of their time to work on individual or group projects that they think would most benefit the company. Some accounts suggest the program resulted in products like Gmail and AdSense, which are now widely used products. I thought this was an interesting idea. Employees, to some degree, have the most knowledge of a company’s operations as they are the one’s working the frontlines. By allowing them more time to work on what they consider most important, they will be able to come up with innovative ways to improve the company’s performance. Surely such a simple and effective idea would spread to other industries- or so I thought.

I read some personal accounts of Google’s 20 percent time and learned that the many people are not as enthusiastic about the program as early media coverage suggested, and it hasn’t seemed to spread much beyond tech. Even at Google, less than ten percent of its employees were using it and those that did sometimes referred to it as “120 percent time.” 20 percent time ultimately requires employees to take time off from primary projects to work on individual ventures, a sacrifice many people are unwilling to make voluntarily, and those that do, just end up working longer. It seems that creativity requires context, and the 20% time program didn’t offer the right one for everyone. A few years back there was some media attention to the program’s discontinuation, although there was disagreement over whether it was extinguished entirely

Silicon Valley tech companies like to give off the impression that their management techniques are a form of enlightened thinking, especially when compared to other industries. They pride themselves for their innovativeness and attract many great talent as a result. However, I wonder if these “special” methods act more as decorations to disguise these companies from the fact that they operate and manage like any other profit driven business. Google HR boss said it himself, “In some ways, the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it.”

Despite the program’s discontinuation, it still serves a vital purpose as a part of Google’s story that potential employees can relate to. People want to work at a place that appears to have a laidback, creative culture, regardless of whether or not that’s how it actually is. 20 percent time still serves that purpose.