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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Great News: More Companies Are Letting You Work on Projects You Actually Care About

Even if you like your job, do you ever wish that you could spend a couple of days working on a passion project that’s wildly different from your day-to-day duties? Or see a process or project you know could be so much better—if only you could break free from your jam-packed meeting schedule and actually spend time on it?

We hear you—and turns out, so do employers, who are increasingly finding ways to integrate these types of side projects into their employees’ lives. Why? For one, it’s no secret that helping people find work that gets them excited to jump out of bed each morning is bound to boost morale and engagement. And it’s good for business, too. After all, in today’s constantly changing world, smart leaders know that innovation can come from anyone, anywhere, and at any level. This doesn’t have to take a huge amount of time—after all, we do all have our actual jobs to do—but the important thing is building in that dedicated time and space for ideas to flourish.

So, what does that look like? Hackathons are one great example—originally relegated to engineers at Silicon Valley tech companies, they’ve gone mainstream in the past few years. If you’re unfamiliar, a hackathon is a set amount of time, usually ranging from a day to a week, when you’re challenged to complete a project from start to finish, often outside of your typical responsibilities. From aviation to beer to banking, all kinds of companies have adopted the hackathon as a way to allow employees to take a short step back from their “normal” work and inspire quick thinking and new ideas.

Maeve McCoy, a software engineer at Capital One, recently used a hackathon to come up with an idea for how to improve an existing app to help small business customers with their finances. “I think sometimes people get stuck in the monotony of doing work and then releasing it, and then moving onto the next feature. But I like being able to step back and humanize a problem and step in the shoes of our customers and figure out what can make their lives easier,” she says of the experience.

Of course, it’s one thing to be given the time to come up with ideas—it’s another entirely to know that your pet project could make an actual impact. Which is why some employers have taken the route of creating innovation funds or competitions that give people the chance to pitch their projects in the hopes of getting internal support.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, has held an internal “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition, which awards winning teams $50,000 from the organization’s IDEA Labs Venture Fund, as well as help polishing their ideas even further. Adobe supported more than 1,000 experiments through its Kickbox program, which provides employees with everything they need to come up with a brilliant idea and get it off the ground, including innovation guidelines, $1,000 to put toward the project, and some caffeine and candy to keep the creative juices flowing.

Other employers offer this free time to follow curiosities on a more rolling basis. Google’s now disbanded “20% policy”, which encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time working on creative projects, is perhaps the most famous example, but plenty of others have created their own version. 3M, for instance, has a similar policy that has led to some of its biggest innovations, and Intuit allows employees to accrue their “unstructured” time if they prefer to use it in larger chunks rather than on a weekly basis.

Some have gone so far as to create internal think tanks or innovation centers to explore and test new ideas (38% of the largest 200 companies have already set them up, including the likes of BMW, Sephora, and Target). Briana Crabb, another software engineer at Capital One, was thrilled to be able to participate in one of the company’s think tanks. She and her team developed a web application that helps make the process of placing new hires in the company’s rotational program more efficient—an idea that’s coming to life in a few weeks.

“Personally, these sort of things are what make me happiest about where I’m working. I’ve talked to my friends who are recently out of college, and they don’t sound as excited or even excited at all about the opportunities they’re working on. And I get to work on really cool things and love what I’m doing, so it definitely affects how I visualize my work,” shares Crabb. “It not only has been motivating and inspiring, but it just keeps my day interesting.”

Learn More About Working at Capital One

Are you ready to feel that sort of excitement in your job? See if there are any opportunities with your current employer that will allow you to spice up your day-to-day—or, when searching for your next gig, dig into how much the companies you’re looking at value innovation and ideas coming from all levels. Many will tout perks like this, but if it’s not obvious, ask questions like:

  • Are there opportunities for employees to get involved with projects outside of their job description?
  • What do people here typically do if they have extra time at work?
  • Are employees encouraged to voice their ideas for different parts of the business?

You’re a multifaceted human being with interests and talents that go far beyond your core job—why not work for a company that not only recognizes them, but also gives you the time to put them to good use?

This is part two in our “Modern Work Perks” series, created in partnership with Capital One to explore the things that matter most to employees in today’s working world.

Photo of man at work courtesy of Estelle Johnson/EyeEm/Getty Images.