Human Potential

Creativity May Lie Outside the Workstation

Many of you would have heard about how Google came up with a bold experiment for increasing innovation. The management encouraged employees "not to do their job" daily for about 20 percent of the time they were at work. The idea was to increase the overall health and happiness of employees, who often felt overwhelmed by emails and, more specifically, the demand that they respond to those mails immediately. The reason behind this move, according to the company management, was that sometimes just being not connected for a while could be a way to encourage employees to relax and innovate.

What happened next was nothing less than extraordinary. By some accounts, over 50 percent of the company's new products were invented during that 20 percent 'down time.' Clearly, the assumption that letting employees relax and feel unconnected can have a positive result was verified by the benefits of the program. Then there was Intel, which experimented with 'Quiet time' every Tuesday and 'No Email Day' on Friday, so that employees were given time to think, collaborate and work on projects without interruption.

In today's hyper-innovative environment, I do believe that every technology firm that is diving head first into the digital age should concentrate on the 'purposeful' aspect of their work. In other words, why is it that the more technology and computing power we have at our disposal, the less likely we are to feel satisfied with the work we perform in the allotted time? This feeling is something that technology is yet to address. There also remains the question of why companies spend less time studying the expectations of their employees than they do those of their customers. After all, making both sets of people satisfied is equally important.

I'm particularly drawn to a TV commercial by the luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz. The voice-over tells us that the car is a veritable supercomputer that the driver has the pleasure of pushing to its limits. Notice how the selling point isn't a passenger being pulled along by some self-driving technology but rather the fun and satisfaction coming from controlling the supercomputer on wheels. My take on the advert is that plenty of focus groups told Mercedes-Benz what I've outlined: that executives feel so connected to their digital devices and so subservient to them that they welcome the opportunity to take control for themselves, and in this case by getting behind the wheels of a car.

Not unrelated to this topic is the fact that despite companies investing in technology that allows employees to stay constantly connected, there is still a cultural emphasis placed on being in the office. Perhaps, some would feel that they would not get any work done if they decided to telecommute. But for others who have to sit in traffic for hours, getting to the office is becoming more ridiculous as technology makes it easier to work and connect with colleagues from wherever. Plenty of enterprises are losing valuable time of their employees that could be spent innovating and focusing on projects because of their cultural demand that all employees come to the office each day.

A case in point was Yahoo, which did away with their telecommuting in favor of having employees report to the office. Not surprisingly there was no discernable improvement in productivity, and employee morale actually took a hit.

While flexibility in work timing and work place are gradually become the norm, it is vital for companies to enable their employees with structures, tool and mechanism that facilitate and stimulate innovation, and keep their imagination humming in a larger environment.

To pique the creativity of our employees, we engaged them in an innovative, fun activity in which they were asked to connect two dots on a sheet of paper. The drawings were eye-openers, and feedback from employees pointed to why humans will continue to play a central and inventive role in any organization even while it increasingly transitions into automation and A.I.

To stimulate innovation, companies could adopt tools, but they could also go the time-tested traditional way, that is to become more personal and interactive.