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Executives Must Protect Employee Engagement Initiatives From Their Own Managers

Fortune Magazine had released this year’s edition of their “Best Places to Work” rankings. This always proves fruitful to read, as it is packed with examples of how companies are successfully building productive corporate cultures through employee engagement.

One big reminder that we always see in this list is that the most sustainable approach to increasing employee engagement must start with creating a healthy company culture, and protecting that culture from the inevitable competing demands of day-to-day corporate life.

Let’s use a well-known example of employee engagement from Google, who once again earned the #1 ranking, to examine what we mean about “protection.”

One of Google’s most famous employee ‘perks’ is their commitment to encouraging new ideas from every employee, not just those in a special group assigned to innovation. To facilitate this, Google allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on their own projects, rather than those assigned to them. (See this article from 2011 that still rings true.)

Of course, you have to look under the hood: If that 20% is measured in total time, including from 5 pm to midnight, the commitment loses some of its luster. That is, if you work 8 hours and 2 can be dedicated to your own initiatives, it works. If you must fulfill 8 hours on company business, and then are “free” to dedicate all your overtime to your own projects, then the commitment is a sham. By all reports that is not the case at Google, although culturally people there certainly don’t limit themselves to clock-punching 8-hour days!

Senior Management Must Protect This Mindset.

Google has established a cultural method for encouraging new ideas. The company’s task then becomes protecting that mindset from managers who try to capture some of the 20% back for their priorities. That’s a natural managerial tendency that will triumph unless actively monitored and controlled by senior management! Managers at all levels must internalize and protect the 20% allowance, even when it means less time is spent on the projects they must complete.

Responsibility and commitment go both ways

Conversely, management has the right to (and must!) track the productivity of the 20% of time each employee dedicates to their own projects. A manager’s oversight does not stop where the 80% ends. The 20% time is also their responsibility. Managers must engage their employees and stay involved with all projects, and employees must be able to justify the time they spend on their own ideas. Regular check-ins must be part of the manager’s week:

  • What projects do you have going?
  • How are they progressing?
  • What resources might you require to overcome roadblocks?
  • With whom could you profitably collaborate on this?
  • Is the project ready to mainstream? What needs to happen to make that possible?
  • You dropped this idea: Why? What did you learn?

The 20% is not free time! It is an investment Google is making in future productivity and profitability, and must consistently pay off to be sustained. Employees must honor that commitment by working hard to make the best use of this opportunity!

Google makes this work by creating a culture that encourages employees to propose their own ideas and protects that privilege against competing day-to-day managerial priorities.

Does your company protect their engagement and innovation initiatives from completing corporate day-to-day needs? Share an example with us in the comments section.



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