By Christopher Hann
These days more CEOs are getting the memo on the value of fun in the workplace and its contribution to the bottom line. The prevailing wisdom is that a spirit of playfulness builds teamwork by bringing employees together in a collaborative setting. Just look at one of Zappos' core values:"Create fun and a little weirdness."
Southwest Airlines has been the poster child for playfulness in the workplace since its founding in 1971 by fun-loving Herb Kelleher. More recently Cartoon Network CEO Stuart Snyder--named the "Most Playful CEO" of 2012 by Playworks, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit--can be seen gliding about company headquarters in Atlanta on an oversize tricycle.
"For me," says Playworks founder and CEO Jill Vialet, "it's a constant effort around getting the message out that work is not the antithesis of play--by no means at all. The opposite of play is depression."
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, says a positive spirit should start from the top. "The key to leadership is being flexible and open and playful … in a way that is really natural to your own personality," Brown says. "When work and play can be joined in a way that works and is sensible, that, to me, is an ideal."
Each spring Brown teaches a course at Stanford University titled "From Play to Innovation" with Brendan Boyle, a partner at Ideo, the Palo Alto, Calif., design consultancy known for promoting play to inspire imagination. Boyle touched on this idea during a presentation at the 2011 Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne, Australia. "If you can incorporate [play] into your innovation process," Boyle told the gathering, "you're going to make it more enjoyable, and you're going to be better at it."
These days playful leadership may be most famously reflected in the businesses of Silicon Valley--but not just in the grand, in-house gaming arcades and bowling alleys of the early internet days. Fun-based leadership has gone in a decidedly more grown-up and community-anchored direction. At Thumbtack, a San Francisco firm that helps consumers find and hire local service professionals online, employees sit down to lunches prepared by a professional chef. "Eating all our meals together is a great way to build camaraderie," says co-founder and CEO Marco Zappacosta.
The company culture grew organically from Thumbtack's origins, Zappacosta notes, when most of the founders all lived--and worked--in his brother's house. "We keep things casual," he says. "We work hard and care about what we do. But at the end of the day we're not so wrapped up in it that we can't joke about it."