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Google's 20 percent time undergoes rehab

Google's 20 percent time corporate philosophy has undergone some tightening. Is Google being mean or just reacting to the fact that you can't trust everyone with a liberal company policy?

Google is known for its "20 percent time" corporate philosophy. This philosophy (or policy) is supposed to enable engineers to spend one day per week working on projects that aren't necessarily in their job descriptions.

According to one blog, Google is cracking down on just what employees can work on during that 20 percent time. The first step was introducing Gmail Labs -- a digital playground for Google employees to develop new features for Gmail only. According to the valleywag blog, this action perverts the original intent of 20 percent time, and lets Google employees "innovate, but only in tiny sandboxes; on core products, and not on big new ideas." The blog says that employees are finding it harder to get their side projects approved.

I am of a couple of minds about this. First of all, I don't understand how one can assign a time percentage to creativity. It seems like an oxymoron... a "creative schedule" or "window of creativity." Isn't the nature of creativity more freeform?

I think it was a noble effort on Google's part, but it's also a dangerous one. Speaking for myself, given the opportunity, I'd be more than likely to devote more of my "off the clock" time to a creative pursuit that challenges me than I am to regular duties. You have to be assured that your workforce is a pretty self-disciplined bunch to give them the keys to that car.

Even the employees quoted in the valleywag blog admit that the crackdown on the 20 percent time happened in part because employees were so focused on those projects that they were letting the schedules on their main projects slide.

As in the case with most liberal and innovative corporate policies, a lack of structure or definition can cause problems. Have you ever been unfortunate enough to work at a place with a liberal dress code? There's always that one person who comes in wearing a tube top, which results in a Dress Code v. 2.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

12 comments
GSG
GSG

I don't work in a company that does development, we're on the other side, and could be considered a consumer. However, we do have an unwritten policy regarding creative time. I'm lucky to have a CIO and manager that allows us the time to work on creative ideas. As long as our other job duties don't suffer, we're allowed that play time. So far, it's paid off. We've come up with some creative solutions to some problems that saved us quite a bit of money. For example, a vendor wanted to charge us $70,000 over 5 years for a solution, and we created our own at a total cost of $40. That pretty much gauranteed our creative time.

Phil Haney
Phil Haney

Actually, it was several girls in one department wearing tight fitting pants and no underwear because they didn't want "panty lines."

bfpower
bfpower

RE: dress code, our office does have a liberal dress policy (come on - we're in rural Montana, USA). But with ~95 women and ~7 men, the men pretty much get away with anything. Except tube tops. But we are on v.2 because of pajamas and sweats. I think that even in our rural environment we would get better work and professionalism from people if we all grew up and wore a collared shirt. Self included. While I appreciate the 20% idea, I can see that eventually, it will go away and new ideas will form. Isn't that what innovation is all about anyway? Old ideas become outmoded and new ones replace them. So I don't know that doing away with 20% time is wrong, but they should work to come up with a new creative way to keep morale up and keep ideas flowing.

kraterz
kraterz

I know quite a few people in Google both at HQ and some sent to India. What they tell me is consistent - the 20% system no longer works. People have so much to do, no one actually uses that 20% to do stuff other than his or her main job. In fact that 20% time is often an exercise in frustration. It may have been working many years ago but it's dead today.

larry
larry

That idea at its extreme formed the soul of Bell Labs, and revived in some 90's dot.coms, partially as a retention strategy. Compensating brilliant techies not interested in management is tricky. Internal politics notwithstanding, I favor a "time grant" system where the person initiates a project on their own or on "earned" free time (ahead of schedule on assigned work), then is awarded company full time to pursue further. The person will make more, faster progress, and you are more likely to fund the best innovators. Dress codes... if you could just choose who can wear the tube tops... (forgive me, I'm old and thus pre-PC) ;>

sonexman
sonexman

I like the idea that Google is experimenting with. It sure would help with innovation around where I work. Currently, the expect us to do our "inventing" on our own time, then sit in amazement when not much progress is made. "Sorry boss, I really do have to mow my lawn. I have abundant wildlife in my backyard and a small tribe of bushmen have moved in." BTW - When I wore my blue tube top to work, it wasn't so much the tube top that was the distraction. It was the large volume of wretching that followed.

Tenagra71
Tenagra71

Google "owns" the engineering horses that work for them when they are on the clock - and maybe their innovations whether on or off the clock?? Make it a point that deadlines can't slide because of "G Jobs". Then let the horses run. Amazing things can happen when the company invests a few more dollars in this area. You'll find people wanting to come in and innovate and spend their time doing it. Just make sure to reward them when they come up with that multi-million dollar idea or product. That will keep the Horses on the farm, too.

Wingnut
Wingnut

Haha, yeah I can see how panty lines are sooooo much more unsightly than a cameltoe..

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Both of you had what I consider excellent points and hit home in my world. I sense that Google is at a tipping point, having to decide on whether to be a great company or just a really profitable one. In my opinion and it maybe because I am one of the old farts as well, Google has a long way to go to even become remotely as cool and innovative as AT&T was in my book.

BaapidMakwa
BaapidMakwa

Larry is spot on. Google has the potential to be a Bell Labs. There aren't many companies left which seem to understand the true value of pure research, and the breakup of the Bell system is a symptom of that. Several years ago, the CTO of AT&T ordered that pure research be abandoned - all research should be targeted on short time-to-market. And he held up as a shining example their TrueVoice text-to-speech product, which produces very lifelike synthesized speech from arbitrary text input. He ignored the fact that the product released in the early 2000's was based on Bell Labs research in the 1980's, which in turn was based on research dating to the 1950's and before. When Bell Labs first demonstrated a mechanical voice, with which a trained operator could produce intelligible speech, there was no immediate practical application. But the descendant of that early pure research led to a money-making product, and had ripple effects in fields of speech pathology and acoustics. Curtailing innovative research is the technological equivalent of slipping a hypodermic into the corporate vein and giving a squeeze. It may feel good for a while, and it may not kill you immediately, but sooner or later...

Tenagra71
Tenagra71

If a gal has a "toe" a thin pair of cotton panties are gonna do little to hide it, but looser fitting pants would. And the person who posted above you mentioned the no underwear thing. Maybe it was just a thong? I don't see a problem with the tube top, myself. Unless the wearer is 5'4" and 200 lbs? (BTW - don't forget to LOL) Gotta love the "one person" who always screws up the rule for the rest of us... NOT!

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