Hoping to boost innovation, an employer asked employees to spend a day working on anything they wanted. One group of engineers built a system of sensors that allowed workers to see from their desks if the office microwave was free — in the process creating a new office perk that likely cut down on trips back and forth to the break room.
It might not have been quite the innovation the employer was hoping for, but the anecdote — shared by Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, about a member employer — contains an important lesson: Employees need to have freedom to actually experiment.
Major companies (including, famously, Google) have experimented with this idea, giving employees a set amount of work time to devote to passion projects, training and more.
Another large employer, 3M, has had a program in place for decades. "For the past 70 years at 3M, we’ve had the 15% Culture, which encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them," Kyle Thompson, people and culture marketing and communications manager at 3M, told HR Dive via email. While employees coordinate with their manager to ensure day-to-day responsibilities are still executed, they also "get the space to try something new and different, think creatively and challenge the status quo."
Finding the time
Innovation is usually crucial for growth, which how the concept of free time often gets its start at companies, Kanouse told HR Dive. The goal generally is to provide employees with the time and space to stretch beyond their current roles and work on something that might not be in their day-to-day, she said.
In some organizations, this time is set aside for stretch projects or cross training. "[I]t can be used to upskill someone; for example, this would include a customer service rep to test their coding skills, or allowing an engineer to try their hand at branding and messaging." Others use it to create cross-functional teams and build stronger interdepartmental relationships, she explained.
Still, it's easy to see how such initiatives could lose out high-priority daily tasks. To prevent this, employers have deployed the opportunity deliberately. "Instead of it being a loose concept that you may or may not use, we’ve seen our member organizations convert this concept into a quarterly event where the whole company takes the day off of regular work to 'hack' new ideas for the organization," Kanouse said. "Often times this is a format in which you see strong opportunity for cross-functional collaboration."
If the emphasis is on upskilling employees, the time can be a structured resource for staff. "Depending on how it’s deployed," Kanouse said, "it can be a great opportunity for employees to practice new skills."
Assuring the time is well spent
But how do companies measure ROI on something like unstructured time? The company that allowed employees to work on anything they wanted for one full day eventually pulled back a bit, according to Kanouse, changing its policy to have employees work on things related to or beneficial to the organization. "However," she said, "there is also some benefit in allowing for free reign – it allows employees to experiment with technologies that they otherwise would not have, and it can help increase retention."
Tracking can be key, according to Kanouse. Employers should track the projects being worked on and find a way to measure the time spent on each. Even those not directly related to the company's work should be included, she said; "[I]f you find that the employees that are using it have higher retention, higher employee satisfaction scores, etc., you can justify the investment even if the projects never make it to market."
And sometimes, the ROI comes merely from a company living out its stated value of innovation. "Whether it’s experimenting with a new technology, forming a special interest group around a fresh idea or finding a new way to run a process," Thompson said, "our 15% Culture gives employees in all areas the license to innovate."