This Small Company Is Making “20% Time” Work

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May 18, 2017
This article is part of a series called Higher Performance Workforce.

Founder Michael Dubakov noticed that his employees were bored, so he came up with an unusual plan of action.

Back in 2013, the employees at TargetProcess, a project management software company located in New York, had a problem. It wasn’t a surprising problem, but it was a pretty common one: they were bored at work.

TargetProcess’ 110 employees primarily build out product lines, and many of the tasks associated with that work are monotonous, says company founder Michael Dubakov. He watched as his employees struggled to find the time they needed to learn new things. Instead of doing inspired work, he saw that many people were stuck in their daily routines. There was a lack of innovation across the entire company, which he knew could hurt them in the long run. So, he decided to do something about it.

Dubakov, who is originally from Belarus, is an avid follower of America’s most innovative companies, like Google and 3M. He had read with great interest about Google’s popular but controversial 20 percent time program which encourages employees to spend 20%  of their time working on projects outside of their work scope that will be beneficial to the company. While some have questioned whether Google employees actually have enough time to do this extra learning, their 20% time program has reportedly increased productivity and innovation massively. It also reduced boredom.

Dubakov decided to try the idea out himself, but with a twist, to make sure all employees could definitely take part in the plan.

In 2013, TargetProcess introduced “Orange Fridays” as an experiment. During Orange Fridays — four hours on Friday afternoons — employees were free to work on any project that sparked their fancy. They could read, teach themselves how to use a new technology, attend workshops or even develop a new product altogether. Initially, results were good. Dubakov says he quickly started to see a culture of innovation growing among employees.

“People are all different,” he says.“Some people don’t care if they have this time to work on these projects, but the majority are really enthusiastic about it. One person built a small library to visualize tables. Other people try to learn new technology programs. Whatever it is, you can focus on learning, and there are fewer work distractions.”

After several months of the new program, though, Dubakov realized that four hours just wasn’t enough. So Orange Fridays became “Orange Time,” meaning that TargetProcess employees were given an optional 20% of their days, at any time, to dedicate to learning and growth. But while one day per week sparked people’s brains, it still wasn’t enough time for most people to build out new product lines, Dubakov says, which was his ultimate goal.

Now, the program has been altered again thanks to substantial employee input. Today, employees at TargetProcess are given incredible freedom: They have no managers (Dubakov says they did away with managers early on because it wasn’t a natural fit for the company), so all employees are expected to own their roles independently. They occasionally report out to the company’s founders, but otherwise, they can use their Orange Time and work time however they please with very little monitoring.

Dubakov and his fellow co-founders ensure that people actually have time to for innovation by crafting a company culture that allows for anyone to step away from normal work to read, learn and innovate, no questions asked. Dubakov also encourages his employees to pitch him on special initiatives, just like someone might in an open market, to carve out extra innovation time. He says he often approves projects of one to three months away from the daily work grind, because that’s the amount of time and focus it takes to truly develop a new product or way of thinking. These days, employees are even given extra Orange Time (and vacation time) for good work.

Nicholas Malahosky, a member of the marketing team, says Orange Time has helped his career arc immensely.

“If I were at a different company with a more stringent culture, I think I would feel a greater pressure to simply work on daily tasks, without taking the time to learn about the domain, advance my skills and reflect on previous work,” he says.

“I use Orange Time on an as-needed basis for educating myself about things related to my job, such as learning how to use Google Analytics, or reading the latest news and insights from the software and PR worlds.”

Dubakov says the results of this program can mostly be seen over time, not in a few days. But Orange Time does appear to work: investment opportunities have increased since the implementation of this program, and the company has grown from 15 people in 2008 to 110 in 2016. For Dubakov and for his employees, though, the clearest indicator of success is a company culture that prizes thinking outside the box, and outside of routine. The program attracts people who want to learn and grow. Orange Time makes people think more innovatively, and it gives them room to grow personally and professionally. And employees report feeling more cared for and more engaged in the workplace, too.

”Truthfully, you can’t enforce innovation. You can try many things, and one of a hundred might work out into something great — you don’t know what you’re going to get. However, you should give people the ability to start things and see how they work out over time,” Dubakov says.

“I have noticed that people [on my team] became more enthusiastic about usual work (after we implemented Orange Time), since it wasn’t all boring anymore. You have times when you focus 100 percent on work, but during other weeks, you have time for these special projects. This really empowers people to try new things and reinforces people to learn.”

This article originally posted on OpenWork, a nonprofit committed to inspiring companies to continuously improve how, when, and where work is done for the mutual benefit of employees and employers.

This article is part of a series called Higher Performance Workforce.