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This Company Gave Its Employees a Free Month

37signals one-ups Google's famous 20% time, offering employees a full month to pursue their own projects. Is it nuts?

You're no doubt familiar with Google's famous 20% time (now allegedly virtually eliminated under Larry Page, according to some reports), which encourages employees to use one-fifth of their time to pursue their own projects without company mandates or monitoring. The idea is to drive employee engagement, cook up unexpected but potentially valuable projects, and attract and retain the best talent in an insanely competitive marketplace.

Given Google's iconic status and market dominance, it's no wonder other firms with in-house engineering talent have pondered whether to follow suit and offer similar free form time to employees. Some pundits and companies have found the cost prohibitive for firms operating on a smaller scale than behemoth Google, but at least one tech company is willing to take the idea and run with it--big time.

Recently on its blog, Signal vs. Noise, 37signals, the makers of Basecamp and other collaboration tools, publically announced a new program the company is instating. Forget 20% time. It is giving employees a month:

This June will be a full month of free time to think, explore, mock up, prototype, whatever. People can go solo or put together a team--it's entirely up to them. This is a month to unwind and create without the external pressures of other ongoing projects or expectations. We’re effectively taking a month off from non-essential scheduled/assigned work to see what we can do with no schedule/assignments whatsoever.

Some companies are famous for their 20% time where employees get 1/5th of their time to work on their own projects. In spirit I like this idea, but usually it's executed by carving out a day here or a day there--or every Friday, for example--to work on your own projects.

But all time isn’t equal. I’d take 5 days in a row over 5 days spread out over 5 weeks. So our theory is that we’ll see better results when people have a long stretch of uninterrupted time. A month includes time to think, not just time to squeeze in some personal work around the edges.

The culmination of this month of free work time is Pitchday--the first Thursday in July. That’s when everyone will get a chance to pitch their idea, mockup, prototype, or proof of concept to the whole company. The better the pitch, the more likely the project will happen.

37signals is calling this month of unstructured free time an experiment and vowed in the blog post to report back to the reading public about how it goes.

Do you think the company will have positive results to share or is management being insanely idealistic?  

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Last updated: Jun 5, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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