Time off to innovate: Good idea or a waste of tech talent?

Companies like Google and 3M give tech workers free time to follow their passions. Could it work for your organization?

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What's the frequency?

One of the hardest factors to determine with an innovation program is its frequency. Among those who currently have such a program, there is little consistency. They range in frequency from a few days a year to one day quarterly to some time every week.

One thing seems clear: While "Google 20% time" has become a watchword for innovation time off, that's a gold standard that not many other companies are able to offer. "Some companies simply don't have the luxury to give employees 20% of their week to work this way," says Williams, noting that for some companies, 10% -- essentially, an afternoon each week -- is more reasonable.

Some do it even less.

Robin Beck, vice president of information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania, instituted Exploration Days to let employees come up with an IT-related improvement of their choice.

"We want to foster innovation and creativity, but the day-to-day reality of delivering IT gets in the way," Beck explains. Mandating time on the corporate calendar drives home the point that innovation is a priority, she says, and gives employees the time to tackle ideas that might have perpetually stewed on the back burner.

The twist? Exploration Days takes place just once a year. The process begins with an Exploration Days wiki, on which IT staffers can post ideas and attract collaborators if they're looking for them. Teams and individuals work on their project on one of two days (in order to provide flexibility); the third day, dubbed Report Out Day, combines an ice cream social with presentations from the teams about what they've achieved.

Beck and her team considered both monthly and quarterly programs before deciding to start with an annual event, which first took place in August of 2011. A second one is underway for this summer.

Participation isn't mandatory, but a majority of Beck's 300 employees did participate last year, she says, and last year's discussions have already borne fruit. One team tackled the ongoing problem of configuring incoming students' personal electronic devices for the university's wireless network. It developed a new, more simplified process that saved time for both the students and the IT staff.

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