The effective death of Google’s famous “20% time,” where employees were spending one day a week working on personal projects, has been confirmed by a new report. The policy is a victim of Google’s growing focus on efficiency and data, and the sheer size of the company.
It was withering years ago. In a 2010 Quora thread, former Google engineer Ben Maurer wrote that you could take the time, but it wasn’t effective due to the layers of approval required to launch things and that you would do poorly on performance reviews compared to a colleague who spends 100% of their time on their main project.
Now, a former employee tells Quartz’s Christopher Mims that the company started requiring managerial approval for taking the time at all — and that those managers are judged based on the productivity of their teams — and their productivity goals are set with the expectation that employees are working full time at their core jobs. Thus, clearly, managers are discouraged from granting 20% requests.
Some engineers disputed the claim that managerial approval is required, Mims adds in an update, but others acknowledged that the pressure to perform keeps people from taking 20% time. It is jokingly called “120% time,” because side projects occur only in free time.
Constant measurement of everything and the data-based pursuit of productivity has become something of a religion at Google, led by their People Operations department (known as “POPS”)
In a piece on Google’s HR practices, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo writes that “At the heart of POPS is a sophisticated employee-data tracking program, an effort to gain empirical certainty about every aspect of Google’s workers’ lives.”
Frequently, it’s used to justify things that employees like, such as lavish maternity leave, and the many other remaining perks.
Now it means you can work on side projects, just as long as you get as much measurable work done as someone who doesn’t. Just don’t expect much in the way of reward or thanks unless you happen to strike gold.
Maximum productivity wasn’t the aim of the original policy. In fact, the language of Sergei Brin and Larry Page’s 2004 IPO letter suggests that they were willing to take some losses in order to create big wins like AdSense, which was created as a side project and accounting for 25% of the company’s business, as well as Google News and Gmail.
On 20% time, they argued that the policy empowered employees to be creative and innovative, and conceded that “most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.”
It’s another thing that’s been updated with the use of data, like the retirement of the company’s infamous brainteaser interview questions, which were found to be useless in determining success.
The company has clearly judged that having the majority of workers focused exclusively on their jobs is more efficient, tasking a few engineers with coming up a few well-funded and approved “moonshots” at Google X rather than having everyone participate.
Google’s simply gotten too big to be as unconventional or democratic as it used to be.
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