You’ve heard this story before. Designer working full-time at a traditional agency has side projects so he or she can put a few extra beers in the fridge. Designer has deadline with a freelance project and sneaks in a few hours of work to get it done during office hours. Boss finds out and reprimands designer, or worse, fires him or her.

Companies usually call this doing personal work on the company’s dime and it doesn’t make your boss a happy camper. But when your teammates are spread across the world and there are no bosses to look over your shoulder, you begin to question the notion of “company time.”

At nGen, we each agree to a minimum number of nGen-related hours to meet per week. We also make sure we are available to jump on chat if our teammates need to get in touch with us, and we respond to any important messages (to clients or teammates) within 24 hours. Actual work may occur anytime during the day. The important part is that we’re tracking our time, meeting our commitments and doing our best work possible.

We embrace the fact that nearly every nGeneer has at least one side project on the go, whether it’s freelance, the next digital fart simulator, working with a local community, or boning up on a new skill.

Instead of flipping the nGen hourglass and having to wait until some random hour in some arbitrary timezone to fit in those side projects, we embrace the flexibility of working a schedule that we set ourselves. We’ll even go as far to support each other’s non-nGen projects through nGen—offering help when we can spare it.

The Benefits of Side Projects

How can it possibly be a good idea to let your team work on their own projects during company time, you ask? Here are a few reasons…

Our team is constantly improving and expanding.

Here’s an example. I made a little app called Pupil with my friend and iOS developer Pádraig Kennedy. It’s a menu bar utility for switching resolutions on Retina MacBook Pros.

Pupil Logo

It’s never going to make us rich, but the experience has been invaluable. Over the past several months, I:

Aside from the obvious benefits I gained from this experience, the support nGen Works provides yields benefits, too. I can offer the team app design and launch experience, we now have access to Pádraig, who is a talented and now vetted Cocoa developer (he recently finished helping on his first nGen project), and any attention we receive from Pupil can filter back to our team.

It would be impossible to give Pupil the attention it deserves if I had to cram product updates, conversations with Pádraig, reviewer questions, and customer support into “non-work” hours.

Pupil Screenshot

Tasks over projects

By looking at my time as a series of tasks, some for nGen, some for Pupil or any of my other projects like Nimber, Question Everything, or the Vancouver Letterpress League, I can fluidly evaluate what is important on a project-by-project basis without fear of retribution.

When I’m on a creative streak, I jump on design & development tasks for the project that happens to require the most attention, using my commitments to inform which gets priority. I’m accountable to the nGen team who I deeply care about and clients I believe in… They get my best work during those creative peaks, whenever that may be during the day.

The fact that we are flat or distributed may have prompted us to question the notion of company time, but it’s not a requirement. It’s about creating a healthy environment of trust, collaboration, and accountability, and building a framework to support it. In our case, having a set goal of minimum hours and maintaining our commitments gives us enough structure to dynamically plan our days and allows us to manage all of our projects without hiding them. nGen gets priority, but we don’t pretend that external work does not exist.