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Is Genius Hour right for the workplace?
Illustration by Grey Vaisius

7 min read

Is Genius Hour right for the workplace?

Genius Hour has the potential to change how employees think about work. Here's why you should let your people work on personal projects at the office.

Imagine: one hour a day, your employees work on whatever they want to work on. No supervision, no input unless they want it, just one hour where your employees do what inspires them.

It seems bonkers, but famously Google did just that. Inspired by Atlassian’s practice of “FedEx Days,” developers at Google have what’s called “20% time,” a portion of their day where they are encouraged to drop whatever project they’re working on to pursue a project that interests them—even if it’s not their job.

Some of Google’s most memorable projects started here: some were just bits of fun like daily Google Doodles, but it’s also where major initiatives like AdSense, Google News, and even Gmail began. In many ways, 20% time has been one of the keys to Google’s sustained market dominance.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

The exciting thing about 20% time is it engages employees’ intrinsic motivation.

Daniel Pink covers this topic extensively in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink explores Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s “self determination theory of motivation,” who showed in a series of studies that people who were given a problem-solving task with no incentive finished it faster than people who were told they’d be paid for their efforts; this lead the team to conclude intrinsic motivation—motivation that comes from personal interest—is more powerful than extrinsic motivation based on external rewards like payment or recognition.

In other words, unpaid work was more effective than paid work.

That’s a tantalizing proposition for most businesses, but the problem with intrinsic motivation is it’s powerful, but delicate. Intrinsic motivation requires a few conditions to exist:

  • Autonomy: It has to come from within and cannot be dictated from elsewhere.
  • Freedom: Whatever is chosen needs to be chosen freely without coercion—it can’t be influenced by extrinsic rewards like payment.
  • Safety: Intrinsic motivation is a higher order motivation—meaning it can only be engaged if immediate concerns like health, welfare, and salary are already taken care of.

Intrinsic motivation does not survive deadlines or micro-management. It has to grow naturally, or it does not grow at all. In many ways, intrinsic motivation is antithetical to the modern workplace, which is why it’s so incredible that companies like Google were able to harness it at all.

In the last few years, Google has changed their approach to 20% time and many employees find that they’re pursuing that opportunity less and less. Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, writes in his book Work Rules! that “in some ways, the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it.” The freedom and autonomy represented by 20% time helps create a more creative work atmosphere.

This observation is what I find really exciting; most companies don’t require the number of new ideas that Google does, and don’t have the resources to put toward constant, unsupervised projects. But they can benefit from changing their employees’ perceptions of work.

The Genius of Genius Hour

The next iteration of 20% time is “Genius Hour,” an educational movement that repurposes the practice for the classroom. The idea is simple: give students time to do what inspires them and they will be happier and more excited to learn, transferring their passion to the rest of their studies while teaching them skills like project management and self-directed study.

Giving students a chance to explore their own interests transforms school from a mandatory “punishment” to a place of excitement and discovery.

It’s good to be engaged. It’s good to be excited. But are we always engaged at work?

Enter Genius Hour for the workplace. Genius Hour is time when your employees can exercise freedom in a healthy, productive way, using paid time to explore their own creative work. It differs from Google’s 20% time in a few key ways:

  • During Genius Hour, your employees work on their own creative projects—not just what’ll benefit the company.
  • It doesn’t have to be every day! Many schools run Genius Hour once a week.

An hour every day is a big investment, and one that most companies can’t afford—the likelihood of your employees creating Gmail for you is low. But what if you could trade one hour in forty for a more exciting, productive and inspiring workplace? That’s a more reasonable proposition.

Here’s the big question: if you gave your employees time at work to do something else, could that excitement carry over to their job?

The benefits of Genius Hour in the workplace

There are studies that suggest it can! Having a fulfilling, creative hobby can improve someone’s relationship to their job, giving them a wellspring of excitement and engagement that they can draw from at work.

A study led by Kevin J. Eschelman concludes that creative hobbies have several clear benefits for employees’ work, including:

  • More effective rest and recuperation (relaxation!)
  • A renewed sense of mastery and control (satisfaction in progress, not to mention the basis for intrinsic motivation)
  • A better relationship with long-term goal setting (creative development focuses on the long-game, not immediate deadlines)

That last point is especially crucial, since it is clear that over-emphasizing short-term goal setting has profoundly negative consequences; the ability to look to the future to adhere to a long-term goal is a massive benefit.

Eschelman concludes that creative activity could be as important as physical exercise to an employee’s overall health and happiness. He suggests “organizations may consider professional development opportunities for employees that involve creative activities while away from work. Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance‐related outcomes.”

Of course, that study is concerned with hobbies at home. So why give employees time to indulge in a hobby at work?

The big difference between Genius Hour and 20% Time is that Genius Hour isn’t necessarily going to benefit the company directly or immediately. The point is not to generate new projects that will pave the way for future innovation; it’s to change your employees’ relationship to work to improve their overall employee experience.

Genius Hour transforms work

Genius Hour has the potential to change how employees perceive their time at the office. The work day, for most of us, is the thing we have to do. It’s the thing we’re trying to get over with so that we can return to what we care about: food, friends, that book we couldn’t put down last night, etc.

The catch-22 of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation means that those activities will always be more compelling than work because we chose them ourselves.

However, when work becomes associated with who we want to be, a few things happen:

  • You’re excited to go to work; you have something different to look forward to!
  • Your relationship to time changes. Sanctioned time for other projects disrupts the extrinsic reward structure of an “hourly wage”. Genius Hour isn’t “another day, another dollar,” it’s a platform for personal change and, once again, this is a requirement for developing intrinsic motivation.
  • You become more used to shifting into creative and open thought at work.

In many ways, this is the most exciting potential benefit. Genius Hour can push us outside the routine of work and make us sensitive to new possibilities, to think holistically.

Paying your employees to pursue their own projects seems like a crazy idea, but forward-thinking companies are implementing exactly that. Dan Pink profiled a credit union that implemented Genius Hour and Lululemon famously asks their employees to include their personal goals in their 10-year plans, going so far as to pair them with mentors within the organization so that they can achieve those goals.

Margaret Wheeler, Senior Vice-President of People Potential at Lululemon says "we teach employees how to create a vision for their life … in their personal life and their career. We feel if you love your life, it's a benefit for you, and it's a benefit for Lululemon."

Play at work

Our relationship to work and to leisure is changing. Modern communication has allowed work to bleed into our home life, forcing us to be “on call” even when we’re off the clock and making it difficult to truly rest and recover.

If the barriers between work and play are becoming more porous, we need to consider that perhaps “play” should be happening at work.

Dan Pink writes that “initiatives like FedEx Days and sanctioned side projects aren’t always easy to execute in the day-to-day maw of serving customers, shipping products, and solving problems. But they’re becoming urgent in an economy that demands non-routine, creative, conceptual abilities[…] Autonomy over task has long been critical to their ability to create. And good leaders (as opposed to competent “managers”) understand this in their bones.”

Conclusion

In the constant struggle to maintain a work-life balance, it’s easy to let pursuing creative dreams slip away. But the company that helps you find time to pursue your dreams is a place that you want to work—and that’s why you should consider Genius Hour for your organization.

About the Author

Kyle Carpenter is a writer, editor, and content marketer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the editor in chief of Clients from Hell, a resource where freelancers share their hilarious horror stories. Find him here!

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