Google's 20 Percent Factor

Can adding 20 percent of free time make corporate America more productive?

ByABC News
May 12, 2008, 3:02 PM

May 12, 2008— -- Alec Proudfoot was sitting around thinking one day at work. Thinking a lot, actually. Thinking and thinking and thinking. Ideas had been rolling around in his head, and he wanted to take the time to just let them percolate.

So he set back and allowed his mind to roam.

He could do that, without pressure, because at his company employees are told to take 20 percent of their time -- during work hours -- to do whatever they like. That something has to be legal and it has to be ethical, but what it doesn't have to be is productive. If they want to play pool, fine. Jog? No problem. Sleep? Well, OK.

If someone had wandered by Proudfoot's office, they might have seen Alec looking off into the distance, looking to all the world as if he were daydreaming. At some other company, that might have annoyed a colleague or irritated a manager who might have wondered what in the world Proudfoot was doing with his time.

That's the great irony, because so often that "20 percent time" has proved to be some of the most productive time spent at this company. The company is Google, by the way -- the multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation that has changed the way the world finds information.

And it Google is rethinking the way companies value time.

Alec Proudfoot's hours of thinking eventually helped create the innovative RechargeIT project, which is working to produce practical, affordable, incredibly efficient hybrid cars.

The project takes standard hybrid cars and retrofits them so they can be recharged with electricity overnight. The company is also are working with solar charging stations to try to make rechargeable hybrids that can be recharged, basically, by the sun.

"They get about three times the mileage of a standard car in the fleet today, and significant reduction in greenhouse gases, which is the main reason we're here," says Proudfoot.

Google uses a fleet of 31 of the cars at its headquarters. Proudfoot and his team collect an array of information from the vehicles -- mileage stats, performance stats, etc. -- and share that with the major automakers and anyone else who's interested.