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Google gives its employees freedom - and benefits from it

The company allows its employees to use part of their working time for their own projects. This is how Gmail, Google News and StreetView came about. And it prevents the best people from dropping out to start their own startup.

Google is huge, omnipresent, powerful, extremely profitable and for exactly three years it has only been a subsidiary of the holding company called Alphabet. With last year's sales of $ 111 billion and a current market value of almost $ 830 billion, the American company is a giant. The core activities, the Internet services, are still based at Google. And in order for Google to remain so successful in the future, the rate of innovation must be kept high. To this end, the entrepreneurial thinking of the employees should be encouraged and their curiosity should be kept awake, says one of the many guiding principles with which the company identifies.

Freedom creates extra work

This all sounds fine and good, but how can this be implemented in a large corporation with over 80,000 employees? It began years ago with the introduction of a so-called “20% time”. Google understood this to mean that each employee was allowed to devote one day per week to a project of their choice. It had to have nothing to do with his normal duties, but always in the interests of the employer - time for hobbies was not meant. The model, which has been repeatedly declared dead, has changed over the years, but the principle has survived and even spawned core products such as Google News, Gmail and Street View.

The possibility of pursuing other interests is not an obligation, they say. However, the competitive internal environment in the group automatically ensures that the “20% time” is actively used. Participation in innovative projects is also an ideal tool for self-marketing, which Google also needs in order to advance in terms of career.

But aren't Google employees simply being misused to work a workload of 120% if they want to devote themselves to a "20% time" project? Being too busy with one's own work is not an argument against not pursuing a “20% time” project; "We're all very busy," says Doug Rinckes. The 49-year-old New Zealander has lived in Switzerland with his family for nine years and works as a Technical Program Manager for the Google Maps team in Zurich.

Rinckes is the brain behind Plus Codes, a product that was created as part of a “20% time” project that now takes up his entire workload. Plus Codes is a coordinate model for locations that do not have addresses. From a European perspective, this may seem surprising, but more than half of humanity lives on streets with no names. Rinckes and his team have now developed a simplified numbering system that divides the globe into a 20 by 20 field grid and reduces each individual field five times until you get a 14 by 14 meter square. The name of the city and a six-digit code are sufficient to identify any square in the world. The first experiences on Cape Verde were positive. The Nigerian post office and Indian reservations in the USA have also expressed interest. The coordinate model not only facilitates the delivery of goods, but also the work of the ambulance or the exercise of civil rights. In the USA, for example, you have to show a valid home address in order to vote.

Like many such projects, Plus Codes came about by chance, says Rinckes. About five years ago, during his lunch break, he told an Indian colleague how difficult it was to use Google Maps in Sudan because there were hardly any street names in the cities. It was only when he talked to his colleague - who had the same experience in Hyderabad - that he became aware of the extent of the problem.

An incubator for ideas

In cooperation with some team colleagues from the mapping department, a “20% time” project was developed. However, there is no formalized process for this, says Rinckes. He was fortunate to have an extremely understanding supervisor, says the manager and adds: "Apart from the responsibilities of top management, at Google you never really know who is responsible for what." He wants this statement to be understood positively, because it characterizes the constantly reassembling teams at Google. These are kept as small as possible, usually no more than eight people.

While the concept of “20% time” also attracted a lot of attention outside the company, the expansion called “Area 120” has so far attracted little attention. This initiative, launched a good two years ago, created an internal incubator for innovations. The participants can fully rely on their project and also receive financial support. The youngest child is Touringbird, a personalized travel guide that even competes with an existing Google product (Google Trips). First and foremost, it's probably about avoiding the most capable employees leaving Google to start their own startup. Apparently, the entrepreneurial spirit at Google will also reach its limits at some point.