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Should You Encourage Employee Side Projects?
 

It's counterintuitive to encourage employees to pursue projects that don't further your mission statement or your bottom line, but here's why you should consider it.
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When your employees take a break from work in the form of a vacation, it reinvigorates them upon their return, and even entrepreneurs have been known to indulge in a little rest and relaxation. But what about giving yourself and your employees mini vacations in the course of the work day to pursue side projects and interests? It sounds downright unproductive, but for some companies, it serves as a breath of fresh air without biting into profits.

"I think it's a good idea in general to give people that opportunity to explore a personal interest," says Jonathan Feinstein, a professor at the Yale School of Management with a focus on creativity and innovation, "with the thought that, eventually, it will intersect back with things that the organization is interested in," he adds.

Some employers forgo even that caveat, allowing employees to devote time to any sort of personal interest. Chad Troutwine is enthusiastic about his employees' diverse interests and how could he not be, since he has so many side ventures himself? "To me it would seem strange and hypocritical if we pursued our outside interests with such enthusiasm and such gusto and then denied everyone else the same opportunities," says the co-founder of Veritas Prep, a Malibu, California-based company that provides MBA admissions consulting and GMAT preparation.

Troutwine sidelines as a successful movie producer, on top of running other companies such as an early education center and an alternative energy campus he plans to rent to green start-ups in exchange for equity. His co-founder Markus Moberg only has one entrepreneurial endeavor on his plate but he still stays busy heliboarding in Alaska and taking photo safaris in South Africa.

Not only does Troutwine believe that running marathons and writing screenplays makes his employees happier, but he thinks it makes them more productive as well. "I'm a believer in intellectual cross-training," he says, "this idea that pursuing different ventures can improve and inform one's primary job."


The company initially adopted the policy as a way to entice prospective hires and Troutwine claims that of their company's 20 full-time employees, they've had spectacular retention in the eight years since Veritas Prep's inception. However, he admits that "there's always that chance that we can lose someone who just gets pulled into the other job" or passion.    

However, it's much easier to talk the talk about encouraging employee innovation than to actually implement it. "Companies talk a lot about 'above and beyond' but most of them only pay for the job [description]," says Theresa Welbourne a professor of executive education at the University of Michigan. Besides, she adds, not every company or every job position needs to embrace innovation. For example, "you don't necessarily want an innovative accountant," she jokes.

The trade-off between small and large companies implementing these types of policies is that a big company has more resources in terms of time and money to support innovation, while a smaller company has more flexibility and an easier time building company culture through exacting HR.

Companies of varying sizes ranging from Google, to Gore-Tex and from 3M to Jason Fried's 37 Signals have experimented with different ways to catalyze their employees' idiosyncratic interests for the benefit of the entire company and its culture.

Google's famous 70/20/10 arrangement sends employees the message to spend the lion's share of their work hours fulfilling their job description in the narrowest sense, while allotting one fifth of their time to company-related innovation and one tenth to whatever catches their fancy.

Fried took a different approach to creative freedom for employees by offering to pay for employee self-edification such as flying or cooking lessons in exchange for sharing some of what they've learned with their co-workers. Gore-Tex took a different approach altogether encouraging innovation by allowing employees to pick their own titles as well as which co-workers they team up with.

Last updated: Jan 25, 2010




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