Stories about Software


The Perils of Free Time at Work

Profitable Free Time

If you’ve ever been invited to interview at Google or you simply keep up with the way it does things, you’re probably familiar with Google’s “20 percent time”. According to HowStuffWorks (of all places):

Another famous benefit of working at Google is the 20 percent time program. Google allows its employees to use up to 20 percent of their work week at Google to pursue special projects. That means for every standard work week, employees can take a full day to work on a project unrelated to their normal workload. Google claims that many of their products in Google Labs started out as pet projects in the 20 percent time program.

In other words, you can spend 4 days per week helping the company’s bottom line and one day a week chasing rainbows and implementing unicorns. The big picture philosophy is that the unbridled freedom to pursue one’s interests will actually result in profitable things for the company in the long run. This is a good example of something that will tend to keep programmers around by promoting mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

We tend to think of this perk as characteristic of progressive employer startups where you imagine beer in the fridge, air hockey tables and Playstations in the break room, and various other perks designed to make it comfortable to work 70+ hour weeks in the “work hard, play-hard” culture. But interestingly, this idea went all the way back to 3M in 1948:

3M launched the 15 percent program in 1948. If it seems radical now, think of how it played as post-war America was suiting up and going to the office, with rigid hierarchies and increasingly defined work and home roles. But it was also a logical next step. All those early years in the red taught 3M a key lesson: Innovate or die, an ethos the company has carried dutifully into the 21st century.

So, for over half a century, successful companies (or at least a narrow subset of them) have been successful by allowing their employees a portion of their paid time to do whatever they please, within reason. That seems to make a good case for this practice and for a developer who finds himself in this position to be happy.

We Interrupt this Post to Bring You A Lesson From Donald Rumsfeld

Every so often politicians or other public figures say things that actually make sense, but go down in sound byte lore as debacles. John Kerry’s “I voted for the bill before I voted against it” comes to mind, but a very unfortunately misunderstood one, in my opinion, is this one from Donald Rumsfeld:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know, we don’t know.

Admittedly, this is somewhat of a rhetorical mind-twister, but when you think about what he’s saying, not only does it make sense, but it is fairly profound. For example, consider your commute to work. When you go to your car, you know what kind of car you drive. That is a “known-known”. As you get in your car to go to work, it may take you 30-50 minutes depending on traffic. The traffic is a “known-unknown” in that you know it will exist but you don’t know what it will be like and you are able to plan accordingly (i.e. you allow 50 minutes even though it may take you less). But what if, while getting in your car, someone told you that you wouldn’t be at work for about 4 hours? Maybe a fender-bender? Maybe a family member calls you with an emergency? Who knows… these are the “unknown-unknowns” — the random occurrence in life for which one simply can’t plan.

The reason that I mention this is that I’d like to introduce a similar taxonomy for free as it relates to our professional lives, and I’ll ask you to bear with me the way I think you should bear with Rummy.

Structured-Unstructured Time or Unstructured-Unstructured Time

Let’s adopt these designations for time at the office. The simplest way to talk about time is what I’ll call “structured-structured time”. This is time where your boss has told you to work on X and you are dutifully working X. Google/3M’s “20/15 percent time”, respectively, is an example of what I’ll call “structured-unstructured time.” This is time that the organization has specifically set aside to let employees pursue whims and fancies while not accountable to normal scheduling consideration. It is unstructured time with a purpose. The final type(**) of time is what I’ll call “unstructured-unstructured” time, and this is time that you spend doing nothing directly productive for the company but without the company having planned on you doing that. The most obvious example I can think of is if your boss tells you to go make 10,000 copies, the copy machine is broken, and you have no other assignments. At this point you have unstructured-unstructured time where you might do anything from taking it upon yourself to fix the copy machine to taking a nap in the break room.

Making this distinction may seem like semantic nitpicking, but I believe that it’s important. I further believe that unstructured-unstructured time chips away at morale even as the right amount of structured-unstructured makes it soar. With structured-unstructured time, the company is essentially saying “we believe in you and, in fact, we believe so much in you that we’re willing to take a 20 percent hit to your productivity on the gamble that you doing what interests you will prove to be profitable.” Having someone place that kind of confidence in you is both flattering and highly motivating. The allure of doing things that interest you combined with living up to the expectations will make you work just as hard during structured-unstructured time as you would at any other time, if not harder. I’ve never had this perk, but I can say without a doubt that this is the day I’d be most likely to put in 12 or 13 hours at the office.

Contrast this with unstructured-unstructured time and the message conveyed to you by the organization. Here the company is basically saying the opposite: “we value your work so little that we’d rather pay you to do nothing than distract someone much more important than you with figuring out what you should do.” Have you ever been a new hire and twiddled your thumbs for a week or even a month, perusing stuff on the local intranet while harried employees shuffled busily around you? Ever needed input or approval from a more senior team member and spent the whole day clicking through reddit or slashdot? How about telling a manager that you have nothing you can work on and hearing, “that’s okay — don’t worry about it — you deserve some downtime.”

The difference in how this time is perceived is plain: “we’re going to carve out time because we are excited to see just how much you can do” versus “we don’t really give a crap what you do.”

But Don’t People Like Free Time and Freedom From Pressure?

You would think that everyone would appreciate the unstructured-unstructured time when it came their way, but I believe that this largely isn’t the case. Most people start to get nervous that they’re being judged if they have a lot of this time. Many (myself included) start to invent side-projects or things that they think will help the company as ways to fill the vacuum and hopefully prove themselves, but this plan often backfires as organizations that can’t keep employees busy and challenged are unlikely to be the kind of organizations that value this “self-starter” type behavior and the projects it produces. So the natural tendency to flourish during unstructured time becomes somewhat corrupted as it is accompanied by subtle feelings of purposelessness and paranoia. About the only people immune to this effect are Dead-Sea, checked out types who are generally aware consciously or subconsciously that being productive or not doesn’t affect promotions or status anyway so they might as well catch up on their reading.

I believe there is a natural progression from starting off trying to be industrious and opportunistically create structured-unstructured time during unstructured-unstructured time to giving up and embarking on self improvement/training missions during that time to sending out resumes during that time. So I would caution you that if you’re a manager or lead, make sure that you’re not letting your team flail around without structure this way. If you think they’re out of tasks, assign them some. Make time for them. Or, if nothing else, at least tell them what google/3M tell them — we value your ingenuity, so this is actually planned (not that I’m advocating lying, but come on – you can figure out a good way to spin this). Just don’t think that you’re doing team members a favor or taking it easy on them by not giving them anything to do.

If you’re a developer with this kind of time on your hands, talk to your manager and tell him or her how you feel. Formulate a plan for how to minimize or productively use this time early on, before it gets out of hand and makes you restless for Career Builder. Other people do get busy and understandably so, and so it may require gentle prodding to get yourself out of this position.

But regardless of who you are, I advocate that you do your best to provide some structure to unstructured time, both for yourself and for those around you. Working with a purpose is something that will make just about anyone happier than the alternative.

** As an aside, both Rummy and I left out a fourth option, not closing the set. In his case, it would be the “unknown-known” and in my case, it would be “unstructured-structured time”. In both cases, this assumes utter incompetence on the part of the first person in the story – an “unknown known” would mean some obvious fact that was being missed or ignored. In the case of an organization, “unstructured-structure” would mean that team members had effectively mutinied under incompetent management and created some sort of ad-hoc structure to get work done in spite of no official direction. This is a potentially fascinating topic that I may later come back to, although it’s a little far afield for the usual subject matter of this blog.
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dave falkner
dave falkner
9 years ago

Excellent and pointed post. I often find that being paid a decent amount and then organizationally obstructed from being able to accomplish much is essentially like psychological torture.

Erik Dietrich
9 years ago
Reply to  dave falkner

Yeah, agreed. In whatever form it comes, it is maddening to have interceding stupidity of some form or another prevent you from doing good work. In my experience, people often attempt to throw money or lame perks as this problem instead of looking at root cause, and then are mystified when knowledge workers quit on them.

Andrei Dragotoniu
8 years ago

interesting, in 4 weeks I start to work for a company which has the 20% time in the benefits package. It’s the first time for me so we’ll see how it goes and how real it actually is 🙂

Erik Dietrich
8 years ago

Keep me posted. I’m always curious how people enjoy that (and also if it’s “work on anything you want” or “work on anything you think would be good for the company.”)