Once a mainstay of innovation at Google, the 20 percent time perk allowed employees to spend one day a week working on projects that weren’t necessarily in their job descriptions. All of last week there have been reports online that Google has unofficially put an end to this practice; a practice that gave Google some of it’s most profitable and innovative products till date. It’s hard to believe but AdSense, Gmail, Google News, and Google Talk were all the result of the 20 percent time perk and that AdSense alone accounts for about 25 percent of the company's revenues. The program was so successful in fact that reportedly LinkedIn and Apple are some of the other places where it's currently being emulated.
A post on Quartz (one that started it all) insisted that while there is no official directive from Google to kill the 20 percent time perk, managers have made it such that following independent projects on that one day during the week is more difficult than ever now at Google. From being once a “right”, engineers now had to seek permissions to follow their dream projects. The second spanner in the works came with the way Google’s internal analytics structure measures productivity. It assesses how productive teams have been by taking into consideration 100 percent of the time available to an employee (not 80 percent after discounting the perk). The growing number of debates online about this very topic drew in a lot of current and ex-Google engineers. Some of them (anonymously of course) claimed that “stack ranking” has also led to the slow death knell of the 20 percent time perk program. The stack ranking policy ranks employees and fires the bottom 20 percent. Hardly an environment that’ll encourage employees to take risks. Thus reportedly a running joke in Google calls the perk 120 percent time, meaning that even if engineers explore other projects it is over and above what is expected of them in their regular job descriptions. However, some posts also noted that while 20 percent time is a luxury at Google, the company at least makes available its immense compute power, vast databases and other resources to employees seeking to pursue their own Google-related ideas outside their main line of work.
Google's innovative work culture has made it popular in popular culture. But that may be under threat.
Quartz attributes this change in strategy to Larry Page and the revamps he’s put into place since he took over as CEO since January 2011. He has supposedly implemented a “more wood behind fewer arrows” strategy which basically means that Google will still encourage radically different ideas but will concentrate only on a small number of them. Now the incubation and innovation baton has been passed on exclusively to Google’s super-secret X Lab. Google Glass and the self driving car were the results of this very group.
While Google initially remained mum when the explosive Quartz post came out, it later clarified that 20 percent time is actually alive and well. But the (over)reaction from Silicon Valley is quite understandable. Google is somewhat of a flag bearer when it comes to propagating an informal work culture and yet remaining competitive and productive. To those of us not fortunate enough to be working at the Googleplex, it’s sort of like the Holy Grail and to think that this bastion of un-corporate culture is under threat is bound to get everyone worked up. Heck working at Google has been portrayed as so cool that it has now become the subject matter of a big-budget Hollywood movie – The Internship.
The funny thing though is that 20 percent time is not a Google original idea; 3M has had 15 percent time for quite some time. Besides, companies are engaging in hackathons which ultimately amount to that much time, but bring down costs and are more focused. Author Ryan Tate who wrote a book on the subject insists that regular clamp downs on this culture are common in Silicon Valley. Read his piece on why Google won’t be able to kill 20 Percent time even if it wanted to.