Business Leaders Should Look to Internal Side-Gigs to Boost Engagement

Laura Izquierdo
Disruptivo | Unsplash

My mind jumps to Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson strolling past driverless cars and indoor slides in Google’s dog-friendly Mountain View campus. Ryan Reynold’s casual visit to chat about superheroes; the free massage credits, the free fitness classes, the free gourmet food, the free ride home. And yet one benefit is especially relevant for businesses today. The “free” time.

A cloud of speculation has questioned the continued existence of Google’s “20-percent time” initiative since the company went public in 2004. According to some of Google’s engineers, this benefit is not dead, but has effectively shifted to “120 percent time.” Regardless, the logic behind the initiative continues to apply, and there’s never been a better time to pay attention.

When Google went public in 2004, Larry Page and Sergey Brin cited 20-percent time as instrumental to the company’s ability to ideate and innovate:

“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in “20% time.” — 2004 Founders’ IPO Letter

And this logic still stands. Whether or not ’20-percent time’ can survive in a $1 trillion public company misses the point. Google HR boss Laszlo Bock explains in his new book:

“It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can’t be forced to work.”

Google employees aren’t forced to work on additional projects, and there are no written guidelines giving workers the ‘go-ahead’. Bock clarifies that employees who have an idea separate from their regular jobs will typically focus 5 or 10% of their time on it, until its impact becomes apparent, at which point, volunteers will join and build it into a real project.

So, it’s the idea of 20 percent time that’s more important than its day-to-day application. And it makes sense. Workers can’t be expected to arbitrarily switch gears at the chime of a ‘20-percent-time’ reminder and come up with Gmail-quality innovations. The concept stands to encourage those employees eager to add value through avenues parallel to their routing workflow, to do so. And in the current climate, businesses would be remiss to ignore the tech giant’s example.

The gig-economy means business

Unbeknown to many organizational leaders, a lot of their people may already be participating in the Gig Economy.

According to Cornell University’s Louis Hymann, 94% of all new jobs in the United States over the past ten years have been in the freelance and part-time category. If the gig economy keeps growing at its current rate, more than 50% of the US workforce will participate in it by 2027. 35% of the US workforce is involved in the gig economy, and 42% of young people freelance. With 90% of freelancers signaling their belief in the industry’s bright future, this trend looks like it’s here to stay.

Employees are turning to online platforms like Fiverr or Upwork to have their skills matched with online projects they can work on flexibly and remotely to supplement their income. Whilst these outlets present the perfect opportunity for disengaged employees, often looking for a creative outlet and recognition, they’re opportunity costs to employers who fail to see the potential win-win in internal-side-gig opportunities.

According to global estimates, only 13% of people are engaged at work. This leaves 87% of people feeling disengaged and contributing to a huge productivity loss. In the United States alone, disengagement is considered to cost the economy $550 billion every year.

The reality is, the more an employee becomes disengaged, the less worthwhile they view their role. This doesn’t mean they’ll leave; they still need that all-important paycheck. They often continue to work, but at sub-optimal performance, all the while engaging in side-gigs they derive excitement from.

The Case for Internal-Side-Gigs

Now, what if an organization could tap into this hidden talent? Internal-side-gig initiatives could serve to both boost productivity through greater engagement and offer an array of competitive advantages for businesses of all kinds.

Employees could add value in a plethora of ways. Whether in the form of building the company’s online presence; employees could contribute to the company’s blog or manage its social media, start an internal podcast, become involved with organizing company events, provide technical services, or teach other employees a new language. There may even be opportunities for talented photographers, or enthusiastic actors who could star in the company’s training videos.

Professor of Business Psychology Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recommends three things to boost employee engagement; all of which are compatible with the idea of ‘internal side-gig opportunities’.

He suggests employers use extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators; i.e. recognize the need to encourage employees as opposed to “wait and see” if they become interested to do something. This could be a reason why Google’s 20-percent time benefit isn’t widely applied. Whilst it’s true people tend to perform better when they’re intrinsically motivated, this isn’t the case with disengaged workers, who are more likely to wait for specific orders and need to be extrinsically motivated.

So rather than giving employees a vague, conceptual go-ahead, a better idea is to advertise side-gig opportunities internally; encouraging employees to sign up to a clearly defined task, for which their contribution would be recognized, having satisfied a specific business need. However, this doesn’t mean employers should limit themselves to internally advertised posts. Employees may well have an idea they’d like to pitch and opening the floor for suggestions will only increase the opportunities for employees to add value to the business.

In addition, high engagement as originally conceptualized by William Khan, occurs when there’s a person's sense of self and their work persona are closely aligned, which explains why people often feel disengaged when their beliefs and values don’t mirror those of their employer. It’s not therefore surprising that acknowledging worker’s individual interests increases engagement. What better way to apply this in a mutually beneficial way, than by offering internal-side-gig opportunities through which workers can explore and develop their interests whilst serving the company?

Respecting people’s space likewise goes a long way. At least for most people, there is more to life than work. People have passion-projects, hobbies, interests outside their role. Internal-side-gig opportunities present a way for workers to tap into this ‘space’ even when the ‘client’ is the employer. They are opportunities to escape their routinary workflow.

So in reality, the question isn’t whether or not ‘20-percent time’ continues to exist at Google, or whether it’s even workable in a $1 trillion public company. The question is whether businesses in general (the vast majority of which operate in a completely different ballpark to the abovementioned tech-giant), can benefit from the same initiative that contributed to Google’s initial growth?

The answer is, absolutely! And there’s never been a better time. In 2018, US independent workers spent a billion hours per week freelancing, contributing $1.28 trillion to the American economy. The demand for diversification and freedom is clear. Businesses would be remiss to ignore it.

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