“Hack” time: what you can learn from tech companies

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Google famously gives employees one day a week to work on their own projects – time which has led to Gmail, Google News and a raft of other popular features. Other tech companies are following suit, including 37Signals, which announced in a blog post last week that it was giving most employees the entire month of June to develop projects, culminating in a “pitch day” in the first week of July.

For tech companies based on finding the next advancement these “hack days” are useful to get the most from their employees, but what can the non-tech-company learn from the idea?

Increase engagement
You likely know who your most engaged staff are, but how do you separate the almost-engaged from the never-engaged? An opportunity to work on something they love will show you who has the potential to be a top performer, and could give you insight into how to help them get there.

Unrecognized skills
From the accountant who wants to write ad-copy to your HR neighbour who thinks they can improve the company’s carbon footprint – you never know what knowledge and skills are hiding behind job titles until you give people the chance to step out of their cubicles (figuratively, at least).

Creative solutions
From better office layouts to more efficient ways to share information – workers are often in a good position to spot daily inefficiencies and inconveniences, and to have figured out a way to solve them.

You don’t need a month off to take advantage of these benefits. Even half a day, with prizes for the best proposal, will give you the chance to see what your staff can do.

Tips for a successful “hack day”
 

  • throw in a “no PowerPoint” directive to protect the event from being taken over by corporate grandstanding
     
  • make it a company-wide event and encourage staff to work in teams – some of the best ideas might come from an engineer, web developer, accountant and product manager working together
     
  • get management involvement - when executives make a point to attend and discuss hack day projects, it will make staff more engaged in the event
     
  • give each participant or team a time limit to present their ideas, and enforce it
     
  • strike a balance between rules and independence - if you are too weak on enforcement, people lose faith in “the system”, and those who follow the rules will be disgruntled.  However, if you’re too tight on the rules, you risk breaking the independent spirit of the event
     
  • give out prizes -  consider giving prizes to every team that presents a project at Hackday, and award substantial prizes to the winners. Announce winners to the whole company.  
     

 

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  • John Acton on 2012-06-13 2:37:37 AM

    About fifteen years ago (before I moved into HR) I had a summer intern approach me in his last week in the role with a 15-page document about how to change our product shipping process, from order to delivery, to save time and money. This 22-year-old kid had fresh eyes on the whole process and although we didn't simply adopt his plan, we ended up implementing about 80% of his process. And offering him a permanent position!

    Sometimes the best ideas come from left field. It would have been easy to dismiss his ideas but instead I read the whole document and was impressed by what he'd thought of. Where we might look at changing one aspect at a time he had a big picture point of view of the whole process.

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