We all know that employers want to foster employee engagement and we’d all prefer to enjoy our work. Employees who are micro-managed and not trusted to work independently are likely to be less motivated; studies show that flexibility at work improves productivity, whereas ‘presenteeism’ stifles creativity. When we are trusted to work to a high standard, without intrusive supervision, we deliver optimum results.
The problem is that, as a 2014 Economist article pointed out “Because knowledge workers have few metrics for output, the time people spend at their desks is often seen as a sign of productivity and loyalty.” If leaders want to encourage innovation and creativity, then designing a workplace that caters for the preference for autonomy and flexibility that employees value, leads to real engagement throughout the organisation.
”You’re not your job”
A quote from the film Fight Club. More and more of us work as freelancers, contractors and consultants and there are obvious advantages to working this way. Contractors pick up new ideas and inspiration from each work environment and from a range of work groups and professional contacts. This negates the risk of becoming typecast in a particular role or bored to distraction through the repetition of similar projects.
Encouraging staff to explore and experiment pays dividends for the same reasons. Some large companies allow employees to spend time working on projects that are outside the scope of their assigned role; these initiatives are used to attract high quality applicants, and to encourage innovation.
Sometimes described as bootlegging, 3M Corporation’s policy is to allow employees to spend 15% of their time working on their own ideas. I prefer the term ‘daylighting’ by which an organisation encourages employees to choose some of their own projects to work on. Freeing time for staff to work on side projects autonomously, offers the opportunity to explore, to learn and to be creative, with the hoped-for aim of improving morale and increasing work output.
Dan Pink says that motivating employees with new ways of working are well worth considering: “The old motivational techniques have run their course. We’ve oversold the carrot-and-stick and undersold quieter forms of motivation,” he says.
Daylighting is about zoning out and exploring the possibilities, ultimately creativity and innovation arise from what Mary Catherine Bateson describes as “weaving fine threads of novelty” into the fabric of life. Broadening the scope of our work affords the opportunity to re-examine assumptions, to reinvent procedures and reimagine potential, thereby enhancing our capacity to adapt by exploring novelty and serendipity.
Project management is a key skill
When employees have the freedom to choose their own projects and design their own work then they need to be accountable for their productivity and personal project management, with leadership providing the necessary tools and encouragement.
Jonathan Feinstein, professor at the Yale School of Management says:
“I think it’s a good idea in general to give people that opportunity to explore a personal interest, with the thought that, eventually, it will intersect back with things that the organization is interested in”.
In essence by encouraging “daylighting” in working hours, organisations make an investment in well-rounded employees, whose growing knowledge and experience increases their value to the employer. Obviously, daylighting needs to be transparent in terms of team responsibilities, there remains an obligation to meet and exceed the expectations of the job description. Off-piste projects should not be pursued at the expense of other responsibilities, ideally they should interest the individual while meeting organisational objectives in the long run.
Tobias van Schneider, designs and builds new products for Spotify and he suggests these non-work projects work best when people give themselves permission to “think simple, to change their minds, to fail – basically, to not take them too seriously,” he thinks that if you don’t put too much structure around it, you can enjoy different types of success.
Changing the way you think about failure is important for successful side projects. If you don’t depend on the outcome, if they are outside the scope of your job description, you have the luxury of failing; you can call ‘time’ or start over when things aren’t going so well, or re-envision the whole project without recrimination. We all know that we learn from failure, at least as much, as we learn from success.
Key to working this way is to focus on the work for its own sake, not the end-product. It works because we liberate ourselves from the constraints of the day job and consider things from an oblique standpoint that, hopefully, opens new horizons. Non-work projects are meant to be low-pressure; work that you do because you love the work, to satisfy your curiosity or to experiment, not to meet a deadline.