The New Workplace Trend:Goof Off to Get Ahead
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The Fiscal Times
April 25, 2012

Newsflash to employers: Even your best employees aren’t always working on official projects – they’re browsing Facebook, taking the occasional long lunch, and even carving out bits of time to work on their own “side” projects. (Note to my boss reading this: I’m sorry?)

Most employees are doing this behind the boss’s back, but some companies are catching on and, instead of berating the offending employees, actually encouraging them.

Call them the new “empowered employees.” They’re calling the shots on how they want to spend their time during the workday, choosing their own projects, making their own schedules, and even deciding how much vacation time they want to take during the year. And their bosses are fine with it. 

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Companies like IBM, Best Buy, Netflix and HubSpot, for example, have stopped counting employees’ vacation days. Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life maker Linden Lab, recently had his employees vote on how to divvy up the quarterly bonuses.  Google, for its part,  is well known for having official “hang out” spaces in the office, and allowing employees to spend 20 percent of their time on a side project of their choosing. Another CEO, Joe Reynolds of Red Frog Events in Chicago, Ill., even installed a tree house with a zip line in the middle of his office.

For many companies, these perks not only add to the bottom line, they drive innovation. The Fiscal Times talked to Ryan Tate, the technology gossip blogger at Gawker and author of The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business about this growing trend.

The Fiscal Times (TFT): Why is this “empowered employee” movement happening now?
Ryan Tate (RT): Many companies use this to save money on research and development and still get ahead. In certain sectors like technology, there is a bit of a boom and competition for certain talent is very fierce. In the Bay Area, some of the most fiercely recruited people are ex-Google engineers. You see them at all the top companies, so it makes sense that companies are adding a lot of the same programs that Google has.

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TFT: At Google, employees can spend 20 percent of their time on projects they’re personally interested in. How did this come about?
RT: There are varying accounts of it. Paul Buchheit, who built Gmail, has said it was one of the first 20 percent time projects. Buchheit had been given a mandate to do an email project, but there was internal resistance, so he did it as a side project. Google saw the financial potential of it very quickly, and encouraged him to keep the program going.

TFT: What about “goofing off” at work? A lot of offices now have ping pong tables or something like that. And Google has designated spots for hanging out with a friend or relaxing a little.
RT: When you see a ping pong table, the company is acknowledging that when people are at work, they’re not always working. You can’t force people to constantly work. The ping pong table is a visual surrender to the idea that employees need to blossom and do their own thing, even if just for fifteen minutes. It’s very similar to this idea of 20 percent time ― the employee is not going to be spending every hour working on officially sanctioned work.

But it doesn’t always work perfectly. There’s always the risk of putting too much energy into the side project or getting too distracted. But the goal is, “Let’s tap into some of this surplus time.”

TFT: When companies have let employees take unlimited vacation time, often those employees only take about three weeks off.  Are jobs so competitive today that employees feel they can’t take time off?
RT: There’s absolutely a danger in that. Many people I talked to at Google were devoting way more time than one day a week [to their side project]. They weren’t taking time away from their main work, they were just devoting extra hours to the project. Sometimes when you give people room to do what they want, they work harder. Chris Wetherell, who worked on Google Reader, said he worked nights and weekends and busted his butt to get this thing alive because it became really personal for him. He doesn’t have regrets, but I could see how that could be harmful for a person who doesn’t have good work/life balance.

TFT: Could this 20-percent model expand to all sectors and companies – or is it more for creative and tech industries?

Blaire Briody is a contributing editor at The Fiscal Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Publishers Weekly, among others.