Does Your Org Have a Sandbox?

Why innovation and productivity thrive when workers get to play at work.

Slogans insisting that a company values creativity aren’t enough to stimulate innovation.

Big ideas and new perspectives aren’t something enforceable, either. While a company culture can certainly encourage individuality, self-expression, and a more casual approach to work—all worthy, even necessary considerations in a Millennial-dominated workforce—that still may not stimulate the ideal environment for true innovation.

Sometimes, the freest form of creativity happens in the sandbox.

Sandbox time is unstructured time: you make your own fun, turn the mass of individual grains into a playground for ideas, experimentation, and creative destruction.

Google made headlines when it revealed its company policy, popularly known as 20 Percent Time: all employees were encouraged to take one day (out of a five-day working week) to focus on their personal passions. Not their job, not their typical work, but something they really cared about, hobbies included. The idea was that passion is better for innovation than pressure—strict quotas, limited roles, and expectations unsupported by cultural features.

The Google approach to fostering innovation while simultaneously building an open, supportive company culture sounds an awful lot like something only a start-up can get away with, but with a little tweaking, can actually be a useful model for any company.

The important thing to note here is that “unstructured” time is not to be confused with “free” time. Employees in this metaphorical sandbox may be playing, venturing outside their strict job descriptions, and trying on new ideas, but there should still be at least a nominal connection with their organization’s mission, values, goals, projects, etc.

As Google apparently learned, vast amounts of utterly unstructured time is ultimately not good for productivity. That doesn’t have to mean the death of unstructured time; it just means the sandbox approach to innovation needs at least a little guidance to keep the sand in the box.

As for how much time employees get to indulge their creative impulses, Google’s 20% turned out to be a bit much—even if they credit the policy with producing some of their biggest wins and new products. Something closer to 10% (around a half-day each 5-day working week) leaves plenty of room for meeting deadlines, staying busy, and generally keeping on top of productivity.

Creating a company culture conducive to innovation doesn’t mean turning people loose to abandon their responsibilities and wreak havoc.  A lack of structure during the workday should not equate to a lack of accountability. A culture with clear values, broad goals, and a general sense of what benefits the team, consumer, project, or company as a whole lends some broad—but not stifling—structure to time spent in the sandbox.
The fact is, on any given day, focus waxes and wanes, and employees may actually be more productive in bursts than in an endless slog while on the clock. Instituting a sandbox policy encourages them to turn their lapses in on-task work into opportunities for innovative thinking. A little unstructured time, built into the day, relieves pressure and offers an outlet that efficiency-first cultures simply don’t provide.

Even if not engaged directly in job-specific tasks, everyone should still be accountable to explain what they are doing, why, and how it (in theory, long-term, or immediately) benefits the company.

People need to feel they won’t be punished for indulging their ideas for innovation. Building unstructured time into the working week helps support ideation, as well as a company culture that values individuals, their time, and their ways of thinking. The reward is happier employees freed to support company innovation.

image credit: Gil Garcia

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Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached on Twitter.

Edgar Wilson




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