Google's 20 Percent Factor

How Adding 20 Percent Free Time Could Make Corporate America More Productive


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.

"The idea behind this was, let's get some real world data on these cars and see how they work in the real world," he said. "This is just the very start of seeing how this concept works."

With gas prices at an all-time high, the timing couldn't be better. And that's another irony of 20 percent time: People who are given free time to think, without pressure, often see further down the road, because they're not focused on today's immediate problems.

They can be more visionary. In other words, if Google had waited for a committee to identify the need for something like RechargeIt, it's likely it would have just started on it now. If at all.

"When you're passionate about something and it's an idea you believe in, you're bound to work harder on it," Proudfoot explained. "Just about all the good ideas here at Google have bubbled up from 20 percent time, or something like 20 percent time, where people have their own idea and run with it."

Another example: Google News, the product of Google scientist Krishna Bharat's 20 percent time. Not long after 9/11, Bharat was trying to find news stories online. "I was wasting a lot of time going to different Web sites to find the same story, and I figured, well, I know how to extract this news, now all I have to figure out is how to put it together in one compact place."

And he did. Today millions of people use Google News the way Bharat envisioned. Had he not had that free unpressured 20 percent time to explore, he wouldn't have tried it.

Google Senior Vice President for Engineering Research Alan Eustace understands that. He concedes it can be a little unnerving for a manager to watch employees waste away one-fifth of a workday without having to account for the time, but the results -- for Google -- have been very good.

"I think having control over your own time -- both your time and your ideas -- is really important. Some things take a lot of time," he said.

It is a concept that is beginning to get notice in corporate America: Patience can be a virtue in the workplace, because -- sometimes -- good things just take time.