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Why a free afternoon each week can boost employees’ sense of autonomy

As evidenced by initiatives at Google and 3M, a few free hours every week can make a big difference in employees’ motivation and self-fulfillment


Companies have tried to motivate employees by giving them “autonomy” as a benefit, with Google being the most famous example.

Since 2004, Google has tapped autonomy as a driver with its “20% time,” wherein Google engineers get to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects of their own creation, ones that align with their own core passion and purpose. And this experiment has produced incredible results. Over 50% of Google’s largest revenue-generating products have come out of 20% time, including AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, Google News, Google Earth, and Gmail Labs.

But it wasn’t Google who invented this practice. They actually borrowed it from 3M, whose own “15% rule” dates back to 1948. In the case of 3M, engineers get to spend 15% of their time pursuing projects of their own devising. For a company with a research budget of over $1 billion, allowing employees the freedom to experiment with 15% of that amounts to an annual $150 million bet on autonomy. But as with Google, the products that have emerged from 3M’s 15% rule have more than covered this bet. Post-it Notes originated from 15% time back in 1974. This one product consistently generates over $1 billion a year in revenue, annually putting the company $750 million in the black, which is quite an upside for its investment in autonomy.

It’s for this same reason that today Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, and dozens of other companies have instituted autonomy programs of their own. But the more important point is what we learn from their examples. Google taps this driver with 20% time, meaning it’s giving people eight hours a week to pursue an idea about which they’re passionate. Yet 3M gets amazing results from just 15% time, which is only about an afternoon a week. In other words, if you’ve already worked your way through the passion recipe and are now trying to figure out how to make room in your life to pursue that dream, these living experiments tell us you can get the results you desire by spending four to five hours a week devoted to your newfound purpose.

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