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Why Letting Employees Slack Off Can Be Good For Business

We know unplugging for short periods keeps us sharp. Now, some companies are encouraging “purposeful downtime.”

Why Letting Employees Slack Off Can Be Good For Business
[Photo: Flickr user Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay]

As businesses look for ways to get leaner and technology pushes everything to move faster, it’s no secret that we’re faced with a mounting productivity problem. And as we get used to trying to work smarter and faster all the time at work, we’re repeating the habit at home. Rarely does your manager or spouse say, “Hey, here’s a problem that needs fixing. You have an unlimited amount of time and money at your disposal. Now go.” But on-task, on time, all the time, every time has never been a fair or reasonable expectation, and just because it’s more common now than ever before doesn’t make it any easier to achieve.

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Amid all that relentlessness, there’s a growing recognition that the emphasis on productivity is misplaced. And a growing number of companies are taking note. Rather than doing the reverse, some organizations are actually looking for ways of loosening the reins on their employees, scaling back oversight and restoring the responsibility for time management. For lack of a better phrase, some companies are encouraging their employees to slack off.

Why? For one thing, it’s a nod to the realization that the human mind and body (not to mention the interaction between the two) need a break from time to time. And second, it’s a chance to see what people can accomplish when they take it. Perhaps most notably, Google allows employees to put aside time for projects of their own choosing. The idea is to let them pursue an idea, goal, or passion that excites them–even if it has nothing to do with the company’s business objectives. Not only does that let workers recharge and step back from the daily bustle, it encourages the sort of creativity and engagement that’s needed to spark innovation. In other words, it’s good for business.

It’s no wonder that crowdfunding campaigns tend to spike around universities’ vacation periods. During those times, countless new products and business experiments have been launched, all because someone had an idea that wouldn’t go away, tinkered with it on the side, and finally had a moment to bring it to light. Mental itches need scratching, and it’s in companies’ best interests to help employees scratch them.

What’s more, downtime doesn’t need to be a whole day off every week, or even especially structured. Whether it’s encouraging more interaction among employees who don’t work together, or off-topic and over-the-cubicle conversations, making social connections is important at work even when we aren’t working.

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But “slacking off” alone can be just as key. It’s in those off moments when someone isn’t rushing to accomplish something that they might realize the automotive equipment they design could work well for the dairy industry.

Here at NineSigma, we’ve embraced purposeful downtime both within our organization and from those we work with–our clients and our global network of solution providers of all sizes. It comes from the recognition that innovation depends on the quality of all of our interactions, including our least conventionally “productive” ones–which might actually be harming it.

You can’t innovate if you’re focused just on the mundane day-to-day goals of your business. You need the freedom to ponder, explore, investigate, tinker, talk–or, indeed, just slack off for a while.

Jonathan Jakischa is an innovation technology associate with global open innovation firm NineSigma. He supports leading companies committed to collaborating strategically with innovators around the world.

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