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The Problem With Google's 20 Percent Rule

Passion and innovation are watchwords for Gen Y employees who are seeking work that really engages them. Among the examples often held up as an exemplar of a company giving the young and driven what they want is Google. The search giant has been hailed in the media, and on BNET, for example, for its 20 percent rule that demands engineers spend at least one fifth of the their time on personal passion projects unrelated to their core responsibilities. But is making 20 percent of the work week free time really a practice to emulate?

Writing on the HBR Conversation blog Dartmouth business school professor Chris Trimble fires a bold shot against the Google 20 percent rule, arguing it's unlikely to pay off in your workplace:

[The 20 percent policy] sounds expensive. Very expensive. For sake of argument, let's say 60 percent of the cost structure in your organization goes to salary and benefits. If you were to allocate 20 percent of each person's time for innovation, it would immediately cut 12 points from your margins. Twelve points! Even if you cut it down by extending the 20 percent policy only to a subset of employees, those are huge numbers. Could it be worth it? Will the investment pay off in the long run? Unfortunately, it probably won't.
Why is Trimble so bearish on free time paying off in greater (profit-driving) innovation? He argues that the problem with the 20 percent rule is that giving employees just a dollop of free time but not enough to immerse themselves in their ideas will result to lots of ideas but next to no execution. "The hidden risk in the 20 percent policy is that you end up generating a mountain of great ideas on paper that never become anything more than a mountain of great ideas on paper," he says.

The 20 percent rule, Trimble concludes, is more of a recruiting gimmick than a realistic example for anyone but the biggest companies. Or in other words, show a little skepticism when it comes to free time at work and don't go advocating it to your boss. Do you agree?

(Image of Google sign by Marcin Whichary, CC 2.0)

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