Fun at the firm: the role of play at work

Basketball hoops at work? Graffiti encouraged in the company restrooms? Nerf-dart wars on the office floor? All part of the day's work - at some firms.

The New Economy made foosball tables and an informal office setting the norm for companies desperate to attract talent. Then the dotcom bust turned those foosball tables, some critics say, into relics of a frivolous-business era. Now, casual dress is out; suits are back in vogue.

But even as the pendulum swings back toward the traditional, there are clear signs of lasting legacies from the New Economy workplace. Some amenities - espresso bars, redesigned workspaces that encourage interaction, break rooms - are here to stay. And a few successful firms are cultivating a culture where fun is more than a needed break from work - it is part of work.

"There are a lot of companies that either got it from the get-go or gradually discovered that there was a lot of value to creating a workplace where people are genuinely engaged," says Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company magazine. "Even though times are bad, they're trying to hold on to that sensibility that's been growing."

Integrating fun into the workday doesn't need to detract from productivity or cost extra, say advocates. Rather, they say, if companies want employees to be innovative, productive, and to think outside the box, then fun is essential.

Tom Kelley, author of "The Art of Innovation" and general manager at IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif.,-based design firm, likes to call it "productive play."

"In some ways, we've built a business around this principle of fun," he says. "But I want to defend against the perception that there's anything frivolous about it." At IDEO, "play" has produced the 3Com Palm V, the first laptop computer (for GriD Systems in the early '80s), the stand-up toothpaste tube, and the Acela train.

Now, many firms hire the company for training in innovation as well as product designs. In fact, that's become the hot topic for most clients, Mr. Kelley says, even with the current recession.

"Now more than ever, I think [innovation] is how certain companies are going to break away from the pack.... If companies can make it where it's still fun to come to work because there's a great energy about the workplace, I can't help but think that will help them win," he adds.

The strategy has become an integral part of the creative-consultancy company Play, in Richmond, Va. Play works with clients ranging from Target to Timberland, often helping them rethink their corporate structure. As the name suggests, fun is critical to the process.

At the Play headquarters, the walls are brightly colored and covered with photographs, graffiti is encouraged in the bathrooms, and sidewalk musicians may perform during lunch.

"Moments of laughter and creativity will produce better ideas," says Jennifer Ebert, the firm's "executive storyteller," who recalls coming to work recently and seeing two colleagues seated on the floor reading Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to each other. "Many managers might say that's a waste of time, but if they can start that day in a better place, it helps them be creative that day."

Play's environment, by necessity, is a little extreme, Ms. Ebert acknowledges, but getting clients to shake up their corporate structure is a big part of what Play does. "Fun with the dotcoms was about keeping people" in an era of tough competition for employees, she says. Now, it's more about boosting morale and making workers productive and motivated. "The bigger picture [for managers] is innovation, driven by ideas, passion, teamwork, results."

While it may be easy to see how fun can fit into the business plan of firms like Play or Ideo, whose very business is creativity, both Ebert and Kelley stress that these ideas can work at almost any company. The key, they say, is recognizing that fun isn't about added amenities, but about the culture a firm creates. An element of fun builds trust, communication, and a resistance to taking things too seriously. "Find the organization in which it is OK, in front of the boss, to make fun of the boss," says Kelley. "That is a barometer that says this is a pretty healthy organization."

David Hemsath, author of "301 Ways to Have Fun at Work," includes Nordstrom, Hewlett-Packard, Disney, and Southwest Airlines on his Top 10 list of fun companies. Most ideas in his book - a "wall of fame" that recognizes employees, brainstorming sessions that include team-based competitions, Halloween costume contests - cost little or no money, but, he says, foster both employee loyalty and creative thought.

Still, "You can't dictate fun," warns Mr. Hemsath. "You have to allow fun to happen."

Most firms, of course, are a far cry from cultivating fun in the way Hemsath advocates. And some quibble with the notion that the workplace needs to be enjoyable for employees to be productive.

Research doesn't show much relationship between job satisfaction and performance, says Michael McIntyre, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "Everyone wants to believe the happy worker is the better worker, but the research doesn't bear it out." While many people want their work to be satisfying, he adds, what that means varies with the individual. "I don't expect work to be fun - that's why they call it work."

Certainly some dotcoms took the notion of workplace fun to an unhealthy extreme, says Mr. Webber of Fast Company, substituting foosball and Friday afternoon luaus for a sound business plan.

But firms that are now reverting to a buttoned-down, "check your emotions at the door" environment are missing something, too, he says.

"If you make it so un-fun that it saps the energy of your workforce,... ultimately the organization suffers," says Webber. "People remember how they're treated in good times and in bad.... Good folks always have options.'

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