Background

Google is one of the most successful and innovative companies of the digital age. They have been so successful that ‘Googling’ has become a synonym for performing an Internet search, and Google’s web sites are quickly becoming the main Internet destinations for news, maps, email, and more. Their original search site remains the most widely used search engine on the Internet by a significant margin.

One of the keys to Google’s success has been a program known as ‘20 percent Time’ or, officially, ‘Innovation Time Off’. All of Google’s software engineers are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time—one full day per week—on an unofficial project that interests them. Some of Google’s newer services, including Gmail and Google News, were hobbies started by company employees during their ‘Innovation Time Off’ that were later expanded into official, flagship Google projects. These projects, each now recognized as innovation leaders in their respective fields, would not exist if employees were expected to spend all of their time on their assigned projects (or, in terms employees of contracting firms might be more familiar with, if their employees were completely ‘billable’).

While Google’s implementation of ‘Innovation Time Off’ does not directly translate to a small contracting firm, almost any company could easily adopt a similar policy on a smaller scale and realize significant benefits. A modified version of ‘Innovation Time Off’ would allow employees to create new software solutions, learn new skills, propose new policies and procedures, and better address internal office management, IT infrastructure, compliance, and other needs of small businesses—all at a minimal cost and without requiring an increase in staffing.

A Possible Implementation

For a small contracting business’s purposes, I recommend ‘10 percent time’ as opposed to Google’s ‘20 percent time’. All billable employees should be required to spend about two business days per month (16 hours) ‘on overhead’ pursuing a project of interest that they consider relevant to the company’s mission. These two days could be spread out (4 hours per week) or coalesced (2 consecutive days) depending on the requirements of each employee’s billable tasks and the nature of the overhead project itself.

Employees would be permitted (but never required) to work longer hours on their projects unpaid, and individual employees would also be permitted to join together into small groups or ad-hoc task forces and coordinate their Innovation Days.

Individuals or groups would be required to periodically report briefly on their projects and statuses to their managers and/or an existing management body within the business. This would simultaneously ensure that something is actually being done by each employee with their Innovation Days (it is not intended to be time off!) and provide an opportunity for company leadership to learn about, and potentially embrace, the ideas and products employees produce.

In addition to the concrete benefits to a small business—new products, new expertise, new ideas, and competitive advantages—an Innovation Days policy would also provide a number of intangible benefits, including improved employee morale and improved productivity. In an employee owned business (ESOP or ESPP), Innovation Days can also foster a stronger atmosphere of ownership.

Potential Uses of Innovation Days

It would be impossible to predict exactly how employees will use ‘Innovation Days’ if they are implemented at a small contracting firm—it depends solely on the dedication and ingenuity of the individual employees. There are, however, a few clear opportunities for improving a business and its competitive position that ‘Innovation Days’ could make possible.

  • Gain New Expertise: Employees would be free to use their Innovation Days to learn new skills and capabilities for their own professional development, which broadens the business’s collective capability. New skills—even if not put to immediate use—are valuable.
  • Develop New, Innovative Software: If given the opportunity to experiment, you never know what useful applications developers will come up with. In a small contracting firm with a technology focus, this can be especially beneficial. Even if new applications don’t find immediate use, the skills gained by the developer could easily prove invaluable. Furthermore, a potential client could always contact a company asking for a similar application to those developed on Innovation Days—in which case the company would have a head-start on development and a competitive advantage over other bidders.
  • Ad-Hoc Policy Task Forces: Rather than promulgating company policies and procedures ‘from the top’, company officials could solicit the creation of policy task forces (made up of employees using their ‘Innovation Days’ voluntarily) to recommend policies and—perhaps—even write them independently before review/approval by management. Additionally, employees would be free to form their own independent task forces to proactively recommend policies or policy changes to management.
  • Supporting Full-Time Overhead Staff: Some employees may choose to spend their Innovation Days doing something less innovative, but equally (or perhaps even more) important to a small business’s success. Under the guidance of existing full-time overhead staff, employees may choose to spend their time supporting overhead tasks. IT-oriented employees may participate in server upgrades, network topography improvements, system backups, and more. Others might choose to support HR and reception staff in office management, participate in the business’s outreach and marketing efforts, or contribute to contracting, billing, or invoicing tasks. This reduces the need for a large overhead staff in a small business’s formative years.

Creative Commons License‘Implementing Google’s ’20 percent Time’ in a Small Contracting Firm’ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This means that you may make copies without limitation—and even modify the content—so long as you attribute the original work to me.

Scott Bradford has been building web sites and using them to say what he thinks since 1995, which tended to get him in trouble with power-tripping assistant principals at the time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, but has spent most of his career (so far) working on public- and private-sector web sites. He is not a member of any political party, and brands himself an ‘independent constitutional conservative.’ In addition to holding down a day job and blogging about challenging subjects like politics, religion, and technology, Scott is also a devout Catholic, gun-owner, bike rider, and music lover with a wife, two cats, and a dog.