Five years ago, my company was still a small digital product agency. We were doing good work, but the client work often felt like a creative grind. So as an experiment, we blocked off a week and had everyone work on our app. It turned out to be a success and a blast. Employees had the opportunity to collaborate and innovate, which provided a shot of adrenaline to the team.
Eventually, we decided to continue dialing down client work every other Friday. But rather than getting everyone to work on one thing together, I decided to give everyone space to pursue their own projects or interests. We called it “Lab Fridays,” and the only rule that we instituted was that it had to be focused on learning, creating something new, or an activity they wouldn’t typically have the opportunity to pursue.
This creative time away from work ended up spurring innovation and creativity at Crema. The time “off” actually increased our efficiency, injected new energy into our work, and delivered some of our best ideas. People in different departments work together, improving camaraderie, and the company gets tax credits for every hour spent on innovation.
I learned that encouraging your employees to step away from routine work to learn something new or dream up ideas is a worthy activity with a significant return on investment. If you’re a manager and leader and want to give this practice a try (which I highly recommend), here’s how you can start.
1. Give your team members autonomy during their creative time
When you’re working nonstop on a single project, it’s easy to feel stuck. By taking time away from your regular routine and focusing on something new, you get to scratch a creative itch.
Give team members the autonomy to choose a project that interests them. I’ve seen a transformation in employees’ client work once they have a chance to tap into that creativity. When employees are given the opportunity to access fresh ideas and energy, they break old patterns and offer more creative solutions. The clients notice it, too, and love the results.
Managers should set clear expectations but then get out of the way. At my company, we ask each person what he or she plans to accomplish, and then the team members share what they’ve learned or what progress they’ve made on a project at the end of the day. Leaders act as team members or sounding boards, but they don’t direct projects or tell the employees what to do.
2. Offer a structured place for personal development
We’re all in a whirlwind of work, family, and social obligations, and it can be hard to take time outside of work for personal development. Carving out space within the workweek gives people dedicated time to figure out what sort of continuing education they want.
Adding a little structure can be just the thing that makes people feel free to explore. That sounds a little strange, but we’ve found that people crave more direction on where to start. Employees came to us with a proposal for turning part of Lab Friday into Venture Lab, anchoring it on the company’s core values. We formalized the “time-off” billing hours, gave simple rules for employees to play within, and the rest is history.
Starting small can be a good idea to help people get comfortable with stepping away from normal work obligations. Try it out once a quarter or during lunch, but make it fun (we include snacks and drinks.) It’s incredibly invigorating seeing people come in pumped for the day ahead.
I get that for some, taking time away from work isn’t feasible on a companywide scale. If you’re a manager and this applies to you, you can carve out some development time for your individual teams. Even carving out small blocks of time can go a long way toward refreshing energy levels and creativity.
3. Recognize valuable ideas in unexpected places
Giving employees autonomy to decide what projects light their fire benefits them on a personal level and creates real value for the company. When employees decide they want to invent something new or create an app or service that excites them, we encourage them and always keep an eye out for ideas that can make an impact within our company or for our clients.
Sometimes, the most fun ideas gain the most traction. We built a Slack integration called Scorebot that keeps track of who on a team gets the most emoji reactions, which has pulled in hundreds of high-profile teams and thousands of engaged users worldwide. Of course, it’s important not to put too much of a premium on monetary value. The priority here is for employees to design their own development time.
If you feel like your employees are having trouble with creativity and problem-solving, you might be hesitant about encouraging them to spend some of their precious time at work away from their usual day-to-day responsibilities. But in my experience, my company has seen amazing benefits from doing just that. Whatever form a break from regular work takes, it will likely to revitalize your employees’ energy, supercharge their creativity, and result in long-term benefits. That’s a win-win for everyone.