Google and 20 Percent Time

It’s an unspoken commandment of writing about the “New Economy”: You are required, at least once in your big concept business book, to mention Google’s 20 percent time. This is the corporate policy that allows Google engineers the equivalent of one day a week to work on projects of their choosing, and it is usually cited as an example of the kind of autonomy and purpose that top talent craves.

I do not actually mention this in 168 Hours. However, I was calculating the other day what 20 percent of a single workday would be and came up with 1.7 hours (for an 8.5 hour day). Hmm, I said, that number sounds familiar. Then I remembered why. It was the widely trumpeted number, according to a 2007 survey, of how much time the average office worker wastes per day.

The lion’s share of this 1.7 hours is spent on personal internet surfing, conducting personal business, making personal phone calls–that is, projects of people’s own choosing. In other words, while Google is cited as a paragon of enlightened corporate policy, the average office worker is already following a 20 percent rule…just not officially. It is the tax workers extract on their employers, a little bit of rebellion that says, while you may be paying me, you don’t own all my time. You own 80 percent of it — and that’s it.

Of course, this is pretty inefficient, in that those personal phone calls or surfing are often done on the down-low, when you think your manager isn’t looking, and are done without much purpose or direction. What Google deserves props for is recognizing that any given employee is already spending 20 percent of his or her time not on task. Better to recognize this officially, and have them do creative, interesting work during this time. Since you’re not signing away intellectual property rights, you might get something cool out of it. And the employee gets to do something more meaningful than check Facebook. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (as I drift away to go post a link to this blog there now…)

One thought on “Google and 20 Percent Time

  1. Maybe a new employee benefit could be outsourcing people’s personal lives a la AJ Jacobs or Tim Ferriss — outsource employees phone calls to banks and research on summer camps for their kids so the employees can concentrate on more creative tasks?

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