Use Research Time To Improve Your Team

The schedule of every IT team I have worked with is full.  There is always a steady stream of tasks to be done and technical debt to address.  This makes it easy for a manager or team lead to keep the whole team working at 100% (or more) day in and day out.  The problem with this full steam ahead approach is that it does not provide time for research of new technologies and skill development.

Popular Example

Google made news many years ago when they scheduled a day a week for employees to research and develop skills.  Their instincts were tapped to the tune of 20% of their time.  This is not a small investment in employees and the company itself.  As it turns out, Google has been a pretty successful company.  You can see all sorts of products that have come out of that investment in their employees.  Just take a little time and browse the Google labs projects.  Many of these came out of that time allotted for research.

This example is a good one for us to consider in scheduling projects and workloads.  Google is known for their innovation and skilled workers.  Some of this success comes from the employees that have been hired, but some of the credit goes to management.  This success did not come overnight but what if your organization is considered world-class a few years from now?

Running The Numbers

I am not sure a 20% investment of time is going to pass most companies.  However, what is the cost of 10% of their time?  Specifically, consider the typical IT worker does not work forty hours per week.  Fifty or more is common.  That is a 25% increase in “typical” work week hours.  Therefore, you can look at the hours worked Monday through Thursday, and that often meets the typical forty-hour workweek.  Providing a “research on Fridays” benefit would effectively be doing so with “free” hours.

The cost of blocking out half the day on Friday for research or personal projects would be easy to absorb by any organization.  It used to be built into a lot of consulting companies.  They had a little thing called “bench time” that was non-billable work while waiting on a contract.  That has disappeared from many companies as they try to improve margins and reduce costs.  However, that has a price.  I worked at a company that used their bench time to create commercial software products.  They could have turned those consultants loose as soon as the billable jobs ended.  Instead, they turned them into resources to create another revenue stream.

Making It Work

A program like this is not to be taken lightly.  There is plenty of room for abuse and missing the point.  I have found that a few ground rules and some structure will go a long way.  The first step is to build in some accountability.  This has a danger of becoming micromanaged, but it is too valuable to ignore.

The level of accountability I am talking about is regular status and setting goals.  Since this is research work, then the goals can be flexible.  However, there must be something for the employees to aim for.  This can be a challenge for those that are not self-starters.  Help them lay out a plan for what they want to accomplish.  Just make sure that you push them to lead the discussion and work on something that appeals to them.

When you have a team that is working for you and has a “bonus” each week of doing something to advance their career everyone wins.  The employees will get better while becoming more loyal to your organization.  There is a danger of employees growing to the point where they leave to start their own companies, but I would argue that as good publicity.  When you have an environment that fosters success, you will have a steady stream of people that want to fill those holes.

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