Google’s ‘20 per cent time off’ policy falls victim to work

Staff can only pursue their own ideas on top of their punishing formal schedules
  • @timwalker

Google’s “20 per cent time”, the policy of allowing its staff 20 per cent of the working week to focus on a personal project, has been all but abolished, according to its former employees.

The one-day-per-week allowance has been an integral aspect of the tech giant’s corporate culture since its early days, and led to the creation of innovative Google products such as AdSense, Google News and Gmail. But Silicon Valley message-boards were abuzz this weekend following a report by the website Quartz, in which former members of the firm’s staff claimed that while the policy was not officially moribund, the majority of employees now found it impossible to take time away from their core responsibilities at the company.

Google staff reportedly refer to 20 per cent time as “120 per cent time”, suggesting they can only pursue their own ideas on top of their punishing formal schedules. Google’s casual, collegiate working environment has long been held up as a model for the firms of the future, and 20 per cent time was one of many employee perks intended to attract entrepreneurial workers.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the company’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, are all said to have taken advantage of the policy, while other tech firms have introduced their own version of the idea.

Twenty per cent time has always been an informal programme, rather than official company practice. Yet when Google went public in 2004, Page and Brin wrote in an open letter: “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 per cent of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative.”

Google responded to the Quartz report by claiming that 20 per cent time was “alive and well”. Last year, however, it emerged that staff were required to gain approval before embarking on a 20 per cent project.

Fruits of down time

Google News (launched 2002)

Google News runs on an automatic aggregation algorithm, which selects the most up-to-date data from the web on any topic, drawing from thousands of news sites.

Gmail (Launched 2004)

Google’s webmail behemoth began as an internal employee email service. For its first three years it was an invitation-only affair. After it went public in 2007, it ballooned. By June 2012, Gmail had more than 425 million users worldwide.