Who says recess is just for schoolchildren?

A short break of (somewhat) unstructured, yet supervised play, recess is easily dismissed as something we outgrow, even if research shows it is incredibly beneficial. However, when applied correctly, the concept of recess offers a beneficial tool for any team. In the same way that recess gives kids a chance to use different parts of their brains and take a physical break from mental work, unstructured time can be transformative for your teams.

This “recess”-like block of time can take many forms. For engineers, it might occur on a Friday after a long development sprint. Or a marketing team might pause after a product launch to unwind and reset before preparing for the next campaign. But whatever structure or name it may take, a specific period of less structured time during the workday can bring tangible, measurable improvements to your product and your business.

I’ve personally experienced the benefits of this system. At my company, “Friday Projects” have become part of our development team’s culture. At the end of every sprint, we block off time to use as we wish. Of course, this free time has its boundaries (it’s not time to run errands or take the team axe throwing), but the arrival of Friday Projects is always highly anticipated.

In the end, real product improvements and major cross-team collaborations occur, along with a host of other intangible benefits. All of it reinvigorates the team for the next sprint, often equipping team members with new ways of thinking or an improved set of tools.

If you’re wondering if this kind of break might benefit your team, the short answer is “yes.” But there are several lessons and best practices my team has learned that can help you achieve the benefits of this concept even faster.

  • Encourage teams to break boundaries. The idea behind Friday Projects is to pursue something we are personally passionate about. As engineers, we now take greater ownership over the end product and are more able to see projects we develop through to completion. And pursuing these passion projects sometimes means breaking out of our own professional silos and working with departments we don’t often interact with. As a result, this added free time has allowed us to push out countless “nice-to-have” features to our product that would not have happened otherwise.
  • Make sure good work gets noticed. A passion project is only rewarding if it actually gets done. For our team, we have a rule that any new product feature or update gets released publicly. This ensures a level of accountability, but also makes sure our work doesn’t get lost. When applying this in your organization, encourage your teams to champion the work they do during unstructured time. This can be a happy hour celebrating a feature launch or ordering T-shirts celebrating a new product update — whatever it is, don’t let good work go unused or unrecognized.
  • Take time to look inward. Free time can also be a great time to reflect on work life outside of sprint deadlines and product launches. What tools are we using? Why? Is there a better way to do this? These strategic questions are often pushed aside by day-to-day concerns, but it doesn’t make them any less important. Many of us have used our Friday Projects time to form working groups that tackle these questions. On several occasions, we have used the time to research and purchase better development tools and integrations for our engineers. In other instances, we have deployed internal code updates and protocols that greatly improved the inner workings of our product. It’s important to keep in mind that while these kinds of projects may never be public, they vastly improve the way your team works on a daily basis.
  • Establish rules of play. Our team is very clear about what “Friday Projects” are for. It’s not a “hackathon” where we build whatever we want, and most importantly, pursuing our own projects doesn’t free us from our normal roles. If a project conflicts with something in another department, we run it by that department first. If a new feature idea is a little quirky, we make sure to get the product owners’ blessing before investing any work time on it. Our Friday Projects have been successful because of rules and boundaries, not despite them. Keep this in mind as your teams experiment with unstructured time.
  • Measure success. Passion projects offer the intrinsic reward of launching something you love, but celebrating the birth of an idea is only the beginning. New features, ideas or updates that created during your version of “recess” should be measured and analyzed just like any on-the-clock project. This legitimizes the work accomplished during this period, but also prolongs the rush of launching something new — now your team can celebrate every new milestone that occurs.

It’s easy to see why we haven’t looked to the playground sooner as a way to inspire teams. From the outside, recess looks like unregulated chaos or play for the sake of play. But in reality, this break allows a peer group to take a mental and physical break from the task at hand and helps them reset their brains for the next long sprint of work. They make new connections and may bring a new idea or two with them to the next project.

Friday Projects have improved our product and morale. It’s a tradition the team looks forward to, and also serves as a great perk to brag about when trying to lure new team members.

Given the low overhead cost, unstructured time has the potential to deliver impressive ROI. It’s just a matter of imagining what incredible things your team can accomplish during “recess.”

Oskar Konstantyner is a Product Owner and Team Lead at Templafy, focusing on document creation, external services integrations, compliance and process automation features