In shorts and socks, laptop between his knees, Dylan Hansen stretches out on the company lunch-room couch and smiles. These are the kind of working conditions he likes, he says. Hansen says there aren’t too many days when the boss at Victoria’s GenoLogics Inc., tells the 23-year-old computer software developer to forget his regular job and come to work prepared to be creative and, even better, innovative. It’s hack day, an innovation that’s caught on with high-tech workers around the world.

On hack days, employees aren’t trying to bring down the Internet or attempting to obtain Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s public events calendar.

Software company uses low-key hack days to stimulate creativity They come to work looking to explore fresh concepts that may or may not benefit their company. Yahoo and Google have been holding semi-regular hack days to stimulate creativity among their work forces. Hansen, in between handfuls of company-supplied chips and gulps of soda, said he took the company decree to heart, plopped himself on the couch and immediately began programming his IPod. “I’m designing an applet that tells me when new music is posted on the Internet,” he said. “This really gets your brain going. But it’s not really related to GenoLogics.” A recent open hack day in London, England at the city’s Alexandra Palace — a huge technical, trade and convention facility set among historic buildings — was billed as a festival for London’s geek scene. “What’s great about today is we give people the ability to innovate on things that are not necessarily related to the business,” said Michael Ball, GenoLogics chief executive officer. “If we give people the day off, they might not want to do these things (at work),” said Ball, who wore a T-shirt to work. “It creates a great level of engagement within the team.” GenoLogics designs computer software that helps laboratories manage, integrate and analyze volumes of experimental data generated by biology research. Ball said the company’s work is one piece of a large puzzle, but it prides itself on being on the cutting edge of leading scientific research, especially cancer research. Hack day allows his employees to let off steam, but in a way that gives them a chance to expand their skills without work-day pressures, he said. And, at the end of the day, employees with the best hacks are eligible for prizes that would make any computer wizard proud. There’s a Cool IT beverage chiller powered by a USB port, a radio-controlled helicopter and a toy missile launcher aimed by computer. Hack day, with its prizes, laid-back atmosphere and underlying goal of creativity and innovation, is among the new approaches much needed in Canadian business, said Prof. Bill Chadwick. Chadwick teaches human resources and organizational behaviour in the MBA program at Royal Roads University in Victoria. “Believe me, Canada is low on creativity and innovation,” he said. “Our management practices are bottom of the list.” He cited a Conference Board of Canada report last month that essentially branded Canada as the “land of mediocrity in business.” Outsourcing and tunnel-vision production attitudes are robbing employees of their ability and desire to be creative and innovative at work, said Chadwick, who applauded the hack day concept. “Not a bad idea at all,” he said. “These are small and very much to be encouraged initiatives that we need more of.” GenoLogics employee Tyler Black and Michael Artemiw huddled in front of a computer terminal, exchanging whispers as if they are about to launch a massive practical joke on somebody. They’re trying to map the length of time from start to finish that the company can expect to close a business deal. “It’s kind of an exercise in doing something nerdy,” said Artemiw. Their colleague, Cassandra Petrachenko, sat on an exercise ball while explaining her hack day project. She’s a technical writer attempting to find a way to add a help file to company computer programs that will help their customers. “We’re adding code to the application so that people can open the help file from various locations,” said Petrachenko. “It could reduce support costs internally.” Hack day allows her to step beyond her normal work boundaries. It feel’s like a day off, she said, especially when “you come into work and there’s Doritos and chocolate bars, pop and stuff everywhere.”