Good Ideas Come From Nothing

The blogs posted on the New York Times site The Opinionator always present an interesting view on the balance between work and life, The Stone series in particular. These discuss the impact of work-life busyness from philosophical, individual-psychological and also business perspectives. Many of the outcomes of busyness we focus on as Organisational Psychologists tend to be around the psychological aspects of lack of work-life balance (burnout, employee satisfaction, group conflict and mental well-being) but this constant busyness in employees work lives can also have a real impact on the innovation and market presence of an organisation.

Think about this; when was the last time you had a chance to ‘do nothing’ at work? And by do nothing I don’t just mean check your personal emails or tweet, but reflect on a piece of work, a project, or idea you have had and improve it? Many blogs in The Opinionator suggest that people, and the organisations they work for, tend to cram their days full of delivery, attending meetings and meeting deadlines. As a result, employees do not take the opportunity for reflection or creativity. In knowledge organisations that require the new ideas of their workers to remain competitive, this constant ‘treadmill’ approach may stifle these new ideas (as well as contribute to all the nasty psychological effects of lack of work-life balance).

The most well-known attempt to counteract this in a knowledge organisation is Google’s concept of ‘20% time’. This initiative allows those in creative/design roles to spend one day a week on projects that aren’t necessarily in their job descriptions. They can use the time as they wish, to develop something new or to improve something that is broken. Employees at Google blog about the direct impacts this time has on their products/services/tools and how this has improved our daily lives (and probably Google’s bottom-line!). There are technology-based organisations in New Zealand who also provide a similar concept for their employees and have successfully marketed new products as a result.

However, this is obviously a costly exercise, one that is likely to deter many organisations. While many organisations may balk at the thought of 20% of their wages budget not directly impacting the business, employees may actually spend this amount of time developing work-arounds for systems and processes that aren’t fixed because there is ‘no time’.  They may also be too ‘pushed for time’ that they do not take action on their passing ‘strokes of genius’ that may be great revenue earners for the business. The challenge will be for organisations to turn the ideas developed during this time of reflection into practical action, the other side of innovation. Organisations may also need to accept that many of these ideas may not translate into direct benefits for the organisation, but may indirectly improve business performance through professional development and employee engagement.

 Managing time for reflection, balance and innovation can have positive impacts for organisations and their members but it is a complex initiative to implement.

What are your thoughts on the concept of ‘free time’ in organisations? 

 Are there parameters that can be put around this concept to help turn great ideas into reality?

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