Lessons From the Playground: The ROI of Play in the Office
During the snowstorms that blanketed much of the country this past winter, a number of news stories lamented the American worker’s loss of good old-fashioned "snow days." And I couldn’t agree more. It's a bummer that, thanks to mobile life, we have lost that rare, special day where adults can slide downhill on a sled rather into an office chair at home.
And it isn’t just individual workers who lose out from the lack of fun. All businesses would benefit from more play, not less. We seem to have lost our sense of balance in this age of mobility: Our modern-day failure to separate home and work has its benefits, yes, but it also has its drawbacks.
The benefit, of course, is that we are not limiting our thinking and creativity to the nine-to-five day. But the drawback is that we are dealing with our nine-to-five problems at home. By not separating "recess" from work, we're providing a disservice to our relationship with both work and play.
Not that there aren't alternatives. Instead of encouraging people to work through the weekend, perhaps we could have a happier, more productive workforce by encouraging them to have fun in the office during the week. The result might well be a happier, more productive workforce -- and business growth.
Consider Google, famous for more than just its endless toys, free gourmet meals and countless perks that employees enjoy. Google has also implemented a 80/20 rule that allows staffers to dedicate 80 percent of their time to their primary jobs and 20 percent to play (involving "passion projects").
Could this sanctioned play time be partially responsible for Google's business domination? Maybe. A 2010 IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs found that 60 percent of those surveyed listed "creativity" as the most important business quality in a leader. If your office isn’t doing enough to foster creative thinking through play, consider investing in recreational activities as a way to lift your level of creative thinking and creative leadership, whether that would mean supporting side products, or installing a pinball machine in the break room.
Play teaches rules and reinforces the importance of limitations or boundaries. (Limitations actually increase creativity.) Nor is play all fun and games. It teaches us important team-building skills like trust, reliability, accountability and the (perhaps tedious) skill of how to follow directions.
A common assumption is that limitations curb your ability to be a creative leader, but according to 2014 research from Cornell University, people who played sports during their secondary school years showed higher levels of leadership and success throughout their careers. So, the thinking is that anywhere employees can stretch the limits of their ability to function as a team, gain trust and show leadership on a playing field will benefit how they function in an office environment.
And that company softball or kickball team you’ve been thinking of starting? Go for it. Playing softball together might help your team overcome personality restraints, improve at working within time deadlines and excel during periods of under-staffing.
Play to combat modern life. Every responsible executive I know is empathetic about employees' challenges to balance work and life. Those executives understand the challenges because they themselves are engaged in that same work/life battle.
And we understand how modern, always-on mobile life produces a different kind of stress that can lead to poor performance at work. Perhaps the time is now for leadership to make some serious efforts to counter the under side of modern life and promote mental and physical wellness.
Since we already know that just sitting at our desks is threatening our health and that there are counter-strategies (a recent study showed that working at treadmill desks improved memory and attention), perhaps we could introduce some treadmill desks into the office. Perhaps we could help our teams counter the cortisol-raising effect of digital life by encouraging a battle of the bands on Guitar Hero.
Word of those fun times the Google complex is having has spread across the business world; and now many employees are considering a little fun in the office a new job requirement.
Whether it be video games in the break room, kickball teams after hours or companywide happy hours, we're seeing results: Some of the world’s most profitable companies are inciting play because it not only benefits the morale and stress levels of employees, it is a better business practice.
When you look at the ROI of supporting and sanctioning play in the office, then, having fun at work is just good business.