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Some companies have discovered, to their surprise and profit, that programmers are very creative people. I think of Google and Atlassian, for example, who allow regular (monthly, I believe) "free days" where programmers get to work on whatever they want (with approval) and the company reaps the rewards.

Examples cited were new products, bug fixes that no one had wanted to fix before, new teams forming, etc. Another result (and perhaps the original goal) is that for the remaining days between free time, programmers have more motivation.

Is there more backing to this theory, that allowing a "controlled" creative output is good for motivation and morale, or more examples of successes with this approach?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Not really an answer per se, nor am I expert in any ways regarding or had direct experience being in such situation. But I too was/am quite interested in the subject, perhaps as a form of wishful thinking, here is what I gathered thus far :

  1. Self-Actualization According to Maslow the tip of the pyramid is self-actualization. Programmers usually tend to fare well materially speaking, most of us eat, have a place to call home and have friends and family around us. As we gain experience we also tend to have fairly good self-esteem. However our actual work does not always provide ways to feel accomplished and not all have the time or want to take time away from other aspects of their lives to get that by themselves. So personal projects on company time will help a lot.

  2. Cheap R&D sometimes these projects can be applicable directly to the business of the company. And who more motivated to carry out the project than the person that came up and worked on the idea.

  3. Motivation a bit related to point 1 above. Even if we do not make it big with the idea to have the occasion to exercise the creative muscle every once in a while, or to be allowed to scratch an itch that doe snot necessarily fit in the company`s project plan allows us to remain motivated. This RSA presentation illustrate this pretty well I think.

  4. Productivity Sometimes these project could be work related. One can get tired of doing the same thing over and over and decides to automate this but without the freedom that comes with this initiative it could be difficult to convince management it is a worthwhile investment despite the zero business value the idea presents at first glance.

In all quite frankly I think everybody wins with such policy. Sure it incurs a direct cost to the company and the (monetary) benefits are difficult to calculate, but life is sooo much more than numbers arranged in zero summed columns.

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The RSA presentation is exactly what I was thinking of, and that's where I got the Atlassian example. – MPelletier Oct 20 '11 at 20:32

I've had experience with this, a company I worked for had 10% 'free time' which meant you got Friday afternoons to muck about with what you wanted.

It was a failure for 2 reasons:

  • you can't do much in a single afternoon and coming back to an interesting piece of work after a week of working on other stuff isn't really conducive to anything.

  • There was always more work to do that friday afternoons were spent working on company business anyway, just like you'd do if you stayed late at work.

So I think a better approach is to allow for free time projects in between real work. When a release is ready to go out and you have no more work to add to it, there's the opportunity to say "work on whatever until we need you again". That way you do not get to interrupt real work, and get a long spell to focus on the new stuff as if it were an official, work project.

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