20 Percent Time: Offering Your Employees Autonomy

By Thursday Bram on 17 December 2010 0 comments
Photo: stphillips

As an employer, it's tempting to want to control each aspect of what your team does over the course of the day. You have things that need to get done — that's why you're paying your employees — but offering your employees at least a little autonomy in their time at work can have beneficial results for your business, as well as keep your employees' morale up.

Google is one of the best-known examples of employee autonomy in action. The company offers its employees what has come to be known as 20-percent time. 20 percent of the time Google engineers spend at work can be directed into a project that directly interests them. The results have included Gmail, Google News, and AdSense (which has lead directly to money in Google's pockets).

Creating a program in a small business that allows for the sort of autonomy that Google encourages may not be as simple as announcing that each employee should take a day a week and use it for pet projects. At the very least, small businesses don't have the margins that Google does, but there are ways to introduce new levels of self-direction into the work that your employees are doing.

Build on Your Employees' Interests

The typical employee would rather not be doing the same thing day in and day out for the rest of their lives. That fact is one of the issues that contributes to many employees feeling that they ought to be constantly looking for new employment opportunities. Offering projects with new levels of responsibility and self-direction can counter that tendency, as well as benefit your business. Tracy Kellner owns Provenance Food and Wine. She's only able to offer her employees so many hours in the shop, but she has found that offering some projects that can be handled at home to one of her employees has provided many benefits.

The employee in question had asked for more hours. "I have 2 to 3 other part-time employees who also wanted more hours, but in this instance, Nicole had expressed to me in a review that she wanted more responsibility and also is thinking about starting her own business at some point," says Kellner. "Since I could not give her more hours to physically work in the shop (thus taking away from the other staff's hours — I couldn't justify putting another staff member on the floor at this point) I gave her the autonomy and responsibility to work up to 5 to 6 hours a week from home, working on our newsletter, Facebook posts, and planning in-store events, all things that did not require being at the store to plan. This has worked out great because I was able to give Nicole a few more hours, free up some of my responsibilities, and still give the other staff members their hours."

The mechanics of the situation wound up being fairly simple to manage: "Nicole and I meet regularly at the shop to review her work, which she logs into a spreadsheet and emails me each week. The spreadsheet details all of the things she's worked on during that time period. I give her regular feedback and as she gets more tenured and comfortable with these duties it frees up more of my time to work on other business-owner responsibilities."

Focus Your Team's Energy

When you have goals your business needs to meet — such as landing new clients — but no preferred strategy to reach those goals, putting the question in front of your employees can be a valuable tactic. Shilonda Downing knew her company, Virtual Work Team, was ready to step up its marketing. "I offered my employees the last portion or 25 percent of their work day to help promote our business and to optimize the marketing avenues in which we were currently engaged. It was optional, and I agreed to pay the team members who accepted this challenge, and all but one employee took the offer and ran with it. I have a small team, and we all work in synergy for clients worldwide, which can sometimes be myopic. Allowing the team to think outside of the box to garner new clients is refreshing to us all. I also offered my team members who obtain new clients for our company a bonus based on the first invoice of the new client they've obtained. I've been blessed with a great staff who took my idea and turned it into new business."

The tactics that Downing's team used varied, ranging from promoting the company online to developing a community-based strategy geared towards local prospects. She did provide some support, like giving out copies of previous marketing materials, so that her team wouldn't have to redo work that had already been done. Mostly, though, Downing was able to turn her team loose and start handing out those bonuses as work poured in.

Create Autonomy in Your Business

For most small business owners, finding the best way to use your employees' time is an ongoing question. It's rare that you'll be in a position to completely turn your team loose, even for one day a week, but identifying even a day a month that you can hand over to the team to talk about the opportunities they see for your business can be invaluable. As an owner, you likely have a good overview of how your business works, but someone down in the trenches may see small changes or opportunities that you can make use of — provided they have the time to think about the matter and speak up about it.

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