Debate Rages over Google’s ‘20% Time’

By Banc Digital

2 min read

Quartz Magazine’s recent piece about the decline of Google’s ‘20% time’ has sparked a lively debate concerning both the company and its employees.

What is ‘20% Time’?


For those unaware of the ‘20% time’ policy instigated by Google by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2004, the idea behind it was to encourage freedom and innovation for its workers. Employees were permitted to take one day off work a week to work on independent side projects.

This famous perk was said to be responsible for highly successful projects such as AdSense, Google News and Gmail, amongst others, which now accounts for a large percentage of the company’s revenue.

What has Happened to the Policy?

Despite the obvious success of the ‘20% time’ policy initially, Quartz has reported how Google has effectively eliminated the process. Based on accounts by current employees it seems that finding the time away from their regular work to pursue individual projects has become unfeasible.

Despite this, there has been no official announcement from Google on the policy’s prohibition. Instead, reports have suggested that workers need to acquire the permission of certain managers to exercise their ‘20% time’ right and that these managers rarely approve anyway.

The anonymous source that Quartz is referencing – a current employee of Google – claims that the company and the managers in particular are now more focussed on the level of productivity rather than any side projects. This has meant that the previous right for ‘20% time’ has been, to all intents and purposes, shut down.

Google’s Response

The response from Google was simply that ‘20% time’ at the company was “alive and well”. Employees have too weighed in with their personal accounts, with differing opinions of the being branded back and forth.

Accounts suggest that, due to the competiveness of such a high ranking company, the employees who are ranked by Google (known as stack ranking) within the lower end of the workforce are compelled to improve their output. In this high pressure environment it comes as no surprise that engineers would pass up their ‘20% time’ right.

However, the general consensus has materialized that, although a tighter focus is applied on engineers, the opportunity is still there to instigate side projects for those who have the desire to pursue them.

Google is Still Experimenting

Quartz has also noted that despite the dispute around ‘20% time’, Google still looks for innovating ways to increase worker productivity. Concentrating resources and employees into a smaller amount of projects is one of these, as a way to increase incentive and performance levels.

However, this has further fuelled the argument that the more experimental projects such as Google Labs – sourced by ‘20% time’ – are being killed off. Larry Page, who became CEO in 2011, is instead looking into projects that are central to the Google mission.

With the strong response from the company, along with contradicting worker responses, this may or may not mean a change in strategy for the company. However, the question still remains on whether Google is prepared to lose ‘20% time’ completely, or just restrict it for only a few elite workers.