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Why I pay my team to pursue their passion projects

As the race to hire and retain top tech talent intensifies, Virti CEO Dr Alex Young explains why his team are supported to develop their ‘side hustle’ projects on company time and the benefits this has brought to his rapidly-growing company.

1 week in every quarter? 

How do you expect your team to meet their targets with that much time off task?

When I talk about the time I ring fence for Virti employees to pursue their passion projects, I’m most often met with these questions. And I can understand why: with the dominant narrative of start-up life fixated on rapid iteration, maximising efficiencies and minimising overheads, the idea of encouraging employee ‘side hustles’ could be seen as counterintuitive…..

But Virti’s revenues have grown over 1000% in the past year, and we’ve recently closed a $10m Series A funding round. And that’s not because we’ve thrown everything and everyone behind building our product with blinkered focus. It’s because we’ve built an innovation model that embraces the diverse talents and varied interests within our high-performance team. 

How our ‘innovation weeks’ work
Every quarter, the whole Virti team is invited to down their (metaphorical) tools and dedicate their time to developing a project or solution, in line with our company mission and values, that personally matters to them. There are no other frameworks or prescriptions, as I believe that true creativity and innovation thrives when talent is given free reign. 

At the end of the week, we come together to present, discuss and celebrate our creations.

Over the past year, outcomes of these innovation weeks have ranged from a sophisticated rapid prototyping framework to an AR virtual buddy to support children undergoing inpatient treatment in hospital. 

Time well spent?
Some of these projects add direct value to Virti – solving a customer problem or streamlining workflow – but that’s not why our innovation weeks are becoming a central feature of company life. 

For a start, as an immersive training company, we are committed to practicing what we preach when it comes to prioritising our own professional development. We know that effective L&D in 2021 is no longer about dry e-courses and offsite corporate training days; it’s about engaging, interactive, practical exploration of new ideas and experimentation outside of normal workplace frameworks. 

In line with this, I believe the most important outcome of these weeks is that they provide my team with the time and headspace to explore the spaces they are really excited by, to follow their passions and to try new things as part of Virti. 

Championing curiosity
In their book The Curious Advantage, Paul Ashcroft, Simon Brown, and Garrick Jones argue that “curiosity is the greatest driver of value in the new digital age”. They explain that, contrary to popular belief, curiosity can be developed by adults, and that it is of pivotal importance in fuelling collaboration, creativity and innovation; fostering stronger relationships; encouraging continuous, self-directed learning; enhancing emotional intelligence; and making leaders more inspirational and effective. 

In order to trigger a curious mindset, individuals must be exposed to ambiguity, change and novelty. Then, to develop this mindset, they must be provided with a nurturing and conducive environment in which to sow ideas and reap benefits. I firmly believe that the most successful start-ups are those which make it possible for their teams to work curiously, and this is what our innovation weeks are designed to do.  

A new tactic to attract top talent
Putting independent innovation at the heart of my company is not just a win for our creative output. It also works to make us stronger and more impactful as a team. This is both because of the cohesion that comes from collaboration across our normal units during innovation weeks and because promoting employee innovation is an incredible way to retain and recruit the industry’s best talent. 

In the fast-moving tech sector, it’s always been tough for organisations to find and hold on to the best people. Indeed, back in 2019, a global shortage of more than 85 million tech workers was predicted to occur by 2030, representing $8.5 trillion in lost annual revenue. However, with the sudden tech acceleration kick started by the pandemic, existing shortfalls have been severely exacerbated.  Just over half (51%) of companies surveyed by jobs platform CWJobs this year felt the competition for tech talent from other companies was too strong, while 46% reported difficulties in finding the specialist skills required for their teams. And, out of 1000 tech workers surveyed, just 29% intend on staying with their current employer for the next 12 months,

For start-ups, a struggle to recruit top young talent is often a major blocker to growth. The majority of new companies cannot match the sky-high salaries that more established businesses tempt staff with, nor can they trade off reputation or afford elaborate employee benefit schemes. 

But this doesn’t mean that start-ups must set their hiring sights low. What younger companies might lack in material resources, they can compensate for by building an environment that really motivates the Millennial and Gen-Z workforce. 

According to a 2021 LinkedIn report, 76% of Gen Z believe that learning is the key to a successful career, and a Qualtrics study suggests that 80% of millenials would leave their job if they felt that they lacked personal development opportunities. It’s imperative that employers deliver these opportunities in a meaningful way, by supporting their employees’ cravings for growth and novelty and by providing pathways to exercise their itchy feet. 

Disrupting disruption
The idea of disrupting, moving fast and breaking things has become synonymous with start-up life. But as much as there’s a time and a place for this, we must also carve out space for exploring and creating away from goals and targets. Investing in your team is about more than paying salaries, it’s about investing in growing their creativity and their discovery of niche areas of interest. 

So no matter how many incredulous reactions I’m met with, I’m going to continue to pay my team to pursue their passion projects on company time, and I’m going to keep on persuading fellow CEOs to follow suit.

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