Why a free afternoon each week can boost employees’ sense of autonomy

Companies have tried to motivate employees by giving them “autonomy” as a benefit, with Google being the most famous example.

Since 2004, Google has tapped autonomy as a driver with its “20% time,” wherein Google engineers get to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects of their own creation, ones that align with their own core passion and purpose. And this experiment has produced incredible results. Over 50% of Google’s largest revenue-generating products have come out of 20% time, including AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, Google News, Google Earth, and Gmail Labs.

But it wasn’t Google who invented this practice. They actually borrowed it from 3M, whose own “15% rule” dates back to 1948. In the case of 3M, engineers get to spend 15% of their time pursuing projects of their own devising. For a company with a research budget of over $1 billion, allowing employees the freedom to experiment with 15% of that amounts to an annual $150 million bet on autonomy. But as with Google, the products that have emerged from 3M’s 15% rule have more than covered this bet. Post-it Notes originated from 15% time back in 1974. This one product consistently generates over $1 billion a year in revenue, annually putting the company $750 million in the black, which is quite an upside for its investment in autonomy.


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