Harvard Professor Discovers A Cool Secret To Making Employees Feel Like They've Got More Time

Happy cubicle man

Photo: Flickr

Turns out it’s a total myth that to inspire innovation in your company you’ve got to give your employees a bunch of free time to work on pet projects.New research from Harvard Business School shows that to make people feel like they have more time, you’ve got to add tasks to their schedule — so long as those tasks involve helping other people.

It’s an interesting paradox.

But it’s becoming obvious that just giving free time isn’t the answer. Under Larry Page, Google famously killed off its 20% free-time strategy. Ditto for Red Hat. It gives zero free time to most employees and 100% free time to the rare employee that has proven to be the best and most innovative.

Since nobody can put more physical hours into a day, managers who want to give their employees a sense that they have free time need to address “psychological time,” says Michael Norton associate professor of business administration for Harvard Business School.

Norton and his colleagues recently published a paper called Giving Time Gives You Time [PDF]  

In it, they discovered that if employees feel like their time is well spent, they feel like they’ve got more time. They are happier, more productive, more enthusiastic, and more satisfied. Happier employees are less likely to quit. They are also more likely to bring their best, innovative ideas to the company.

Michael Norton, HarvardMichael Norton, Harvard business professor

Photo: Harvard

“Time management tends to be about helping employees do things faster, or do fewer things. Some of those strategies are terrific. But we wondered if there were things we could add to someone’s schedule that would make you feel like you had more time,” he told Business Insider.The researchers conducted four experiments where they forced some people to spend a chunk of time doing a task that helped someone. They sent other people home, giving them an unexpected windfall of free time.

The people who helped others said that they felt like they had more time than those given free time.

For instance, they called students into the lab and told them they would be taking part in an hour-long experiment. At 45 minutes, they told some that the experiment was over and they could leave. They told another group they needed to stay and spend those last 15 minutes editing essays for low-income students in high school. Those who edited essays were more likely to feel that they had more time than those who got 15 minutes free.

Interestingly, when people were told to spend time on themselves, they did not report feeling like they had more time.

Norton says managers can use this research in a couple of ways.

1. Make employees participate in a company volunteer effort, particularly if they can use part of their workday to do it.

2. Let employees know how their day-to-day tasks are helping others. If they can hear how the employee helped a customer, this will also make them more satisfied with their job.

3. Use fun strategies to encourage team members to help each other. Norton tells of one experiment where salespeople were given $20 bonus money and told they had to spend on another team member. Those teams sold more than other groups that were told to spend the $20 on themselves.

By giving people the right kind of time, they will give it back to the company in productivity and innovation.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.