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Is free time sufficient reward at work?

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Is free time sufficient reward at work?

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I’ve been thinking recently about how to encourage collaborative behaviours in the workplace.  The standard carrots and sticks of workplace motivation have revolved around financial rewards and punishments.  The rise of behavioural economics however suggested many other, more intrinsic methods of motivation.  Indeed, they went as far as to suggest that sometimes financial rewards can make us less motivated to perform well.

All of which got me thinking about time.  Many organisations try and prescribe the way we spend our time to the nth degree.  Job descriptions, performance indicators and so on all mandate that our time should be spent performing certain roles and achieving certain outcomes.  Whilst that may be great, it removes any freedom from employees to do things that excite them if those things fall outside of the remit of their job description.

So if you’re looking to collaborate across teams or department, that becomes a bit of a problem, because you’re limiting where people can apply their skills.  You’re taking what John Hagel and John Seely Brown would call a push approach whereby you have planned things out, and therefore know best.  You’re not allowing employees to adapt and mould their time according to the needs as they see them.

Various companies have experimented with so called 20% time since 3M pioneered the approach back in 1948.  Arguably Google have done most to validate the approach, although rumours of their abandoning it this summer are rather worrying.

An alternative to 20% time is the Hack Day, where employees are given a whole day to work collaboratively with colleagues for that period of time.

Whether it’s 20% time or a Hack Day though, there will inevitably many who struggle to see how it can be implemented into the work week.  With employees already working flat out, how can such a large chunk of time be found for them to work off piste on projects of their choosing?

Maybe you can’t, but you need to appreciate that fact, and appreciate that it is likely to stop any attempts you have to collaborate internally.  Rewarding people with time is incredibly effective, both from a productivity sense and an engagement sense, but there are a few questions you should ask yourself to understand whether this is right for your own organisation.

1. Is there adequate slack in the schedule?
If employees are pedal to the metal all day, every day, then that’s something you need to look at before even thinking of tackling collaboration.

2. How do you value thinking?

We all know workplaces where you have to look like you’re working, whether that’s staying welded to your desk or buzzing around looking ever so important.  That’s not really how innovation tends to occur though.  Often, quiet moments of contemplation allow our brain to make those serendipitous connections that become innovations.

3. How is work assessed?
When you try different things, it seems inevitable that at some point failure will result.  If every employee is judged purely against their KPIs then it will be difficult for them to justify spending 20% of their time on things that their employer believes don’t really matter.  This has been aired by various Google engineers this summer when talk broke of the demise of 20% time at the company.

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