Workplace Culture

The Last Word All Work and No Play ..

By Ronald Alsop

Oct. 8, 2010

Playforce Management. That would be our magazine’s title in the kind of world that people like Josh Linkner envision.

“ ‘Work’ is such a negative-sounding word,” Linkner said at a presentation I attended last month about innovation. The founder and CEO of the promotions company ePrize, Linkner also writes a blog about creativity on his website, “As kids, we go out to ‘play.’ Later in life, we ‘play’ sports or ‘play’ music,” he writes in one posting. “But then in sharp contrast, we leave our homes each day and go to ‘work.’ The term implies doing uninspired, often boring and generally yucky things.”

Linkner thinks it would be much nicer to say you are “running off to play” and to hear your spouse respond: “Have a nice day at the playground.” Consider “playing” out a conflict, he suggests, or “playing” through your next tough business challenge.

His message certainly would resonate with members of the millennial generation, some of whom expect the freedom to shop online, listen to iPods and even take naps at the office. But it also makes me wonder whether all generations might appreciate mixing some play and relaxation into the workday. Indeed, for many people, “work” is the antithesis of the fun, freedom and creativity they experienced as children. So why don’t we try to make work feel more like play?

The notion of play in the workplace may sound zany, but it’s really just one perspective in the long-standing debate over how to achieve balance in our lives. While some people think of balance as flexibility in managing both their personal and career demands, advocates of mixing work and play want something more holistic. They don’t want to segregate their personal and professional worlds; they hope to meld those worlds so they don’t have to leave part of themselves behind when they walk through the office door. What they seek is a blended life.

Companies ranging from online retailer (“create fun and a little weirdness”) to Southwest Airlines Co. (“fun-luving attitude”) have made playfulness part of their corporate cultures. But Google Inc. is perhaps the paradigm for blending work and play. It has received abundant attention for letting employees at its Mountain View, California-based headquarters get a massage, take yoga or dance classes, and play a tune on the piano or a game of pingpong. Employees also can take care of personal chores such as getting oil changes for their cars or dropping off their dry cleaning at the Googleplex. That environment has helped make Google the dream employer for many college students. Understandably so. I must say that it was fun dining on gourmet goodies and taking a spin on a scooter when I made a presentation last year at Google’s New York City office.

While Google may have taken fun in the workplace to greater lengths than other companies, it actually followed the lead of earlier pioneering efforts. For example, the software company SAS Institute Inc. has long offered personal perks at its North Carolina campus. In profiling the company in this month’s issue, Janet Wiscombe describes the company’s on-site child-care center, medical-care facility and beauty salon. Employees can play water polo at the fitness center and natatorium, take time to view the extensive SAS art collection or meander along the 1.8-mile “bluebird trail” with its 25 birdhouses. Such leisure activities have helped foster enduring loyalty and very low turnover at SAS.

It’s critical that corporate play be spontaneous, not forced fun. I’m not sure forming “happiness committees” to plan social events and team-building activities is the right strategy. Employees don’t want to feel pressured to wear silly hats or form a conga line and dance through a maze of cubicles. What many would relish is the freedom to take a break when they need to recharge and enjoy their employer’s recreational amenities.

There’s certainly plenty of talk these days about employee engagement in an era of frozen salaries, furloughs and frenzied workloads. Play may be the most engaging approach of all in this stressful period of job insecurity and burnout. If companies would lighten up a bit, everyone might just be happier and more productive. Play isn’t meant to distract from job responsibilities, but rather to rejuvenate. After all, if we’re more playful and laugh a little more, isn’t it likely we’ll be more creative and innovative as well?

Workforce Management, October 2010, p. 50Subscribe Now!

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