This article was updated on September 25, 2018.

Small and middle market business owners want the most productive, effective team possible to meet deadlines and bolster the bottom line. Employees benefit when the business does well, too, but may have a different set of priorities. Wages and work-life balance typically top the list.

How do you help keep employees engaged? One option is giving time for "passion projects" — tasks that aren't officially on the agenda, yet may benefit your business down the line. But are they a cure-all for employee burnout, or simply more trouble than they're worth?

In Defense of Passion

According to Fast Company, passion projects are a critical part of keeping workers happy and stimulating their creativity. If you're a small business owner with talented employees, you are always competing against the lure of self-employment. Many workers now have the option of taking on freelance projects or shifting to an entirely home-based businesses model, but as noted by Entrepreneur, self-employment doesn't automatically translate into time for passion projects. Organizations that build this into their employees' daily schedules can gain an advantage in the talent-retention game.

Work Worries

Can passion projects actually hamper productivity? Possibly, especially in the case of companies that offer their employees time for other projects but don't implement clear standards. A lack of proper management presents two problems: overuse and underuse. In cases of overuse, managers may begin mandating the development of projects even when employees are swamped with must-do tasks. When employees are expected to complete their work and pursue other projects outside their normal schedule, it is likely they will burn out or lose productivity. There's also a risk that side projects will start sneaking into regularly-scheduled task time, in turn causing employees to deliver substandard work or miss deadlines.

Underuse may also occur if employees don't get the sense that higher-ups are actively encouraging the use of passion project time. If they see other workers rewarded for "staying the course," passion may tamper off as resentment rises.

Have the Conversation

There are no absolutes when it comes to passion projects, but you should decide upon a policy then communicate it to employees during the hiring process. Be upfront about self-directed projects in the interview process. If they're not an option, say so. If there's a specific amount of time budgeted, be clear about how much and when. If you're open to the idea but don't have a formal program, make it clear how employees can seek approval for their personal passions. What type of plan is required? Do they need an end goal? How much detail about resource use do you want? By establishing a policy before hiring new staff, you can help ensure expectations are clearly communicated at the beginning of the employment relationship.

A passion project policy can be great for your business and help attract talent — or it can sap productivity from workers. Consider implementing a pilot program to see if passion projects work for your organization.

Tags: Midsize Business Company Policy Research & Insights Articles People Management and Growth Employee Engagement and Productivity