Friday, 10 April 2009

BarCampLondon6: Get Google's 20% Time for Yourself

Flexible working has recently come under the spotlight — due to the change in UK law from the beginning of April, all parents with children under 17 are now able to request flexible working from their employers. Employers are only allowed to reject demands if there are “good business reasons for doing so”.

Parents often want to take time off to be with their children and to provide childcare during school holidays, but time off work is not just for looking after kids. Sometimes you might want to change the balance of your life and invest in your own ideas rather than those of a company.

This BarCampLondon session was a discussion on how you could take time for yourself, and what you would do with it once you’ve got it.


  • Ben — a computer science student on his year out working for an ISP 2 days a week with flexible hours
  • Shadi — a “person of leisure”, problem solving for friends and family
  • Dale — working full time on flexible hours for a large IT company
    • shifted hours to be primary caregiver when first child was born, now wondering how to adjust hours to deal with second child
  • Adam — took off half a day a week when son was born; that time now used for himself since son is at school; recently thinking of moving to a full day off each week
  • Melanie — working full time but dreams of finding her own project; hasn’t found a solution yet
    • disappointed with work leaking in to personal time — e.g. people working on a Sunday to be ready for Monday morning
  • Anna — likes travelling; would like to have some work of her own she can take with her while she’s finding her feet in another country
  • Sarah — works full time but is setting up another company based in India in her spare time

Sarah’s experience

Sarah used to work for company similar to the one she has created. It was taken over a while ago, so she decided to set up something similar but better. She had a vague acquaintance who set up the contacts in India where development costs are very low (£300 per month!). At the moment she’s working on the English translation of the work done in India in her evenings, whilst working full time at her existing job during the day. This results in her working more hours than she would normally, but she has something of her own that she’s building up.

Ben’s experience

Ben is currently a student, trying to avoid going straight into full-time work. Instead, he’s working part time to his schedule. He has quit twice from his current employer as he didn’t want to work long hours. He wants to be able to work on his own projects.

Is working part-time really less hours?

Adam takes a day off every other week and gets to take that day completely for himself. However, Shadi used to work three days a week, but found that she was working until midnight to complete her tasks — her job was tech support so she had to get the customer back online. She also occasionally received calls on her days off if she was the last person to deal with a particular situation, asking her to deal with it. Since she had commitments to be in on certain days, she found she couldn’t alter her hours to compensate for working on her days off.

Ben pointed out that Carsonified have a company-wide policy to work a four day week — the whole office is closed on Fridays.

There’s also more choice than just full time or part time: some of Dale’s colleagues work compressed hours — working more hours a day, but four days a week. They still get paid full time. Others work longer hours during term time but have school holidays off so they can do childcare. See for more information.

Sharing responsibility

As Shadi’s experience shows, you do need a job that can be put to one side — or a company environment that promotes sharing responsibility. Agile processes such as Extreme Programming make this a central part of the culture, not just to enable people going away but to encourage greater flexibility in the whole team. Hospitals also deal with sharing responsibilities regularly, with staff coming on and off shift but providing continuous cover.

Anna wondered whether the people sharing roles needed a certain level of communication skills in order to make this working style possible. Adam agreed: his company hire developers partly according to their ability to communicate in a paired programming exercise — the ability to clearly discuss what they’re working on is at least as important as being able to solve the programming exercise.

This approach clashes with a top-down, command and control culture: employees have to be able to trust their peers and communicate without going up and down the hierarchy. You can’t share a job with someone who you fear might take on your role and replace you when you’re not around.

When you have time to yourself, what do you do with it?

Setting up a new business is risky — so it’s good to balance it with the security of an existing job. Start-ups costs for online businesses are coming down — you can rent your servers in the cloud and only pay for as much CPU and bandwidth as you use.

There are also sites such as One Click Orgs which will enable you to set up a legal entity very quickly for little cost.

Sarah’s approach shows the value of capitalising on your experience — make sure that you’ve made the contacts and make sure that you build on them.

Involving other people

If you need to involve other people in your new venture, you have to balance their commitment with their involvement: if they’re doing you a favour for little money, they won’t necessarily work to your timescales.

Local currency systems like LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) can provide a community of people willing to help each other. The local currency is based on trust and disclosure, with everyone able to see everyone else’s trading history at all times. Members will hold to their commitments or risk other members never doing business with them (a bit like eBay reputations). Note that LETS are not a way of avoiding tax — if you’re operating a business that sells in LETS currency, you’re still eligible for paying tax on the income.

One of the original benefits of LETS schemes was the lack of interest on loans — you can easily have a negative balance and just agree to contribute more in the future. Given that bank interest rates are currently close to 0% anyway, this may not be such an incentive at the moment…

Anna pointed out that one of the most useful people to involve in setting up something new is a mentor — someone to get you moving and be there to provide advice on basic things like planning.

1 comment:

King of the Paupers said...

Jct: As an original LETS engineer, the best part is that when the local currency is pegged to the Time Standard of Money (how many dollars/hour child labor) Hours earned locally can be intertraded with other timebanks globally!
In 1999, I paid for 39/40 nights in Europe with an IOU for a night back in Canada worth 5 Hours.
U.N. Millennium Declaration UNILETS Resolution C6 to governments is for a time-based currency to restructure the global financial architecture.
See my banking systems engineering analysis at with an index of articles at