Apple CEO Tim Cook is following Google’s lead by introducing a program called “Big Sky.” Similar to Google’s 20 percent rule, Apple will allow select employees a few weeks off of their normal jobs to work solely on developing new Apple projects. Under Steve Jobs, the organization had a more hierarchal structure, with most new ideas tricking down from top-level engineers. Tim Cook has taken a proactive approach to employee engagement and Blue Sky could be an early important step in this effort. The program has not been officially implemented yet but the idea is an exciting prospect for a company that is already considered a leader in innovative technology.
3M was the first company to implement a program like this. Back in 1948, the company began its 15 percent program. All employees were allowed to spend 15 percent of their working hours pursuing a new idea. Typically, these were ideas employees discovered performing their normal job duties but did not have the time to continue working on. According to a Fast Company article, the idea behind this program is: “Who knows where the next Post-It Note will come from?”
The primary motivation for these programs is innovation. Company executives believe that their employees are receptacles of new ideas and that they just need the time to focus on developing them. But these programs can also have surprising and positive effects on employee productivity.
One effect Blue Sky will have on employee productivity is better employee task prioritization. The employees that are selected to participate will have to be serious about prioritizing tasks if they will go a few weeks without touching their typical job duties. If an employee has only three weeks before he or she goes into special project work, he or she must be able to decide which projects are most important and get those done. Employees often fall into the trap of doing the easiest tasks first to cross them off of a list and feel productive. Unfortunately, the number of tasks completed is not necessarily the best measure of productivity. Getting the most important tasks completed is what matters. A looming extended period of time away from their jobs can help employees focus on critical tasks that need to get done as soon as possible.
Innovation programs also increase employee productivity through more energetic employees. A period of time spent working on a new project is exhilarating. Employees will see the time to work on special projects as a treat while the company still benefits from their knowledge and skills. Sometimes, time off from work is necessary to rejuvenate us. A vacation would be most employees’ choice but vacation time is typically limited. Time off from typical job duties to work on new projects is like a mini-break. When employees come back, they feel refreshed and ready to work hard.
Lastly, innovation programs increase employee productivity by helping employees feel more connected to their company’s mission. Through their work on special projects, employees get to see how various aspects of a business work together to bring projects from inception to the completed product. Employees will gain an understanding of how their work, no matter how small it may seem to them, is necessary to the success of the company. This understanding motivates employees to work productively with assurance that they are making a difference.
How do you help your employees work more productively?