Does Play Work?
Treehouses, rock walls, bowling alleys, ping pong and foosball, swings and slides, oh my! Remind you of your playground days? Well pinch yourself because more and more workplaces are integrating play structures and fun features to socialize, invigorate and inspire (adult) employees. And the trend is bouncing out from tech into other sectors, as businesses of all shapes and sizes clamour to boost the performance of their existing workforce and draw talent in a competitive market. But does making work look and feel more like play actually, well, work?
The science is slim (but emerging) that socialization, movement and choice are key to worker wellbeing and an overall sense of fulfillment. Playground features may be a blunt and shiny tool to get at a larger, more elusive and tantalizing goal — workplace happiness.
Kathy Mauchner, a former account executive at Corus Entertainment, was among the first to move into the company’s then new Toronto headquarters, Corus Quay, at the foot of Jarvis Street. The 2010 building, by Diamond Schmitt Architects with interiors by Quadrangle, consolidated the company’s +10 downtown locations and 1,200 employees at a single (and singular) decked out waterfront site. Mauchner, who’s 47 and has gone on to work for a number of digital, tech and advertising companies, remembers it as a playground or “camp for adults” (the signature white slide that goes from mezzanine to ground level, like a streamer caught mid-flight, certainly plays that up). “Did we build sandcastles all day, no,” said Mauchner, but the whimsical, circus-like feeling, according to her, felt true to Corus’s brand and engendered creativity. “It solidified my view of the company,” said Mauchner and moving forward, almost wistfully, “no office space will ever be that great.”
But are bells and whistles what make an office environment great? Are slides and swings the future of work? Greg Dekker, VP of Sales and Strategy Effectiveness at Teknion, says he’s fielded numerous calls and questions about the workplace of the future from clients and “it’s almost like I can feel them putting their hands up, ‘but we’re not Google!’” he said. “Because they imagine this workplace filled with ping pong tables and playthings. What they don’t realize is that Google’s environment might be ideal for them, but their offices are not identical either, because what’s good for Mountainview is different than New York or London. What’s playful for one might be ordinary for another.”
Every office and office culture is different, but Dekker boils it down to two foundational trends — movement and choice — that are influencing the rise of play in the workplace. “We have to get people moving more, for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “One, certainly, is that it’s good for us physically, it moves oxygen around.” But Dekker also links personal mobility to performance and ultimately, fulfillment. Employers should trust their employees to answer, for themselves, without having to ask permission, the question “Am I in the right place to get this done?” And they should be prepared to provide those employees with options beyond the “oatmeal-coloured cubicle or conference room,” said Dekker. “Speaking for myself, I feel so much more fulfilled on days when I have more control.” But like the kid in the proverbial candy store, too much choice, with too little direction, leads to big eyes and upset stomach. “If I’m unclear on the goal, everything sounds really good,” he said.
Recently, companies like IBM and Yahoo, the latter under the leadership of Marissa Mayer, have been tightening the reigns and abandoning their work-from-anywhere policies — variations on the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) system developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson at Best Buy in the early aughts, which puts employees in control of when and where they work (and makes them accountable for the results). Best Buy axed the ground-breaking program in 2013, while Ressler and Thompson have gone on to write two books, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It and Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It, and launch CultureRx, a professional services firm specializing in change management.
Dekker says that while there are many things he likes about ROWE, he also sees the challenges, especially for managers. “It’s really hard to manage results, so what [they] fall back on is, I don’t know how to manage results but I do know how to manage you — and that’s a lot easier when I simply see you,” he said. But there’s another reason, according to Dekker, to encourage people to come in to work. “Some of the most successful organizations in the world, like Apple and Google, don’t let you work from home. They really want you to work together with other people. But they don’t just demand it, they try and make the office space so magnetic that when you show up, you’ve got the choices to achieve what you want,” he said.
“The measurement isn’t that you’re in your assigned chair, but that you’re accessing the choice and control to get what you need. So, when you want to have some time to play, some baked-in leisure, you’re doing it with people who you’re also achieving something with as an organization,” said Dekker.
As happy as employees might be working from home Monday morning, running errands on a Tuesday afternoon and staying late to meet a deadline on Thursday, they also derive fulfillment, build trust and perform better when working alongside — and socializing with — their coworkers.
Kevin Daniels is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and leads the Work, Learning and Wellbeing evidence program for the What Works Wellbeing Centre. He’s also the co-author of a review, published in August 2017, of interventions that purport to improve wellbeing by enhancing social environments at work. And while the evidence base wasn’t as strong as he would have liked, there was evidence correlating future changes in wellbeing with improvements to the social environment, mostly through externally-facilitated training or workshop sessions sustained over a period of time. “It got people to do things together, it was as simple as that,” said Daniels. “Some people have requirements for more social contact than others, but some level of social contact is pretty universal, even in individualistic societies like the U.K., Canada and your neighbours to the south.”
While the study did not assess the role of physical environments, Daniels says he wouldn’t write off the benefit of rock-climbing walls and other shared, active spaces within the workplace. “We could make light of it, but there is potentially another benefit to all that,” he said, in that play supports creativity and a general upswing in mood (though, ever offering a scientific caveat, Daniels is not aware of any specific evidence on this front).
“We often talk about the wellbeing-productivity link. Wellbeing drives productivity and there is evidence of that at a group level. Groups of workers that are happier and more satisfied with their work are more engaged with their work and more productive. But of course, it also goes around the other way. The more productive you are, generally the happier you feel. People like to do a good job,” said Daniels.
Though there’s some basis for a correlation between social environments and worker wellbeing and between productivity and happiness, the links between play, productivity and happiness are mostly conjecture. An idea originating in northern Europe, however, might prove to be the final twist to this Rubik’s cube.
“We have this word in Denmark,” said Mette Johansen, Creative Director at Mette Designs, “it’s Arbejdsglæde, or work-joy. It’s about getting the most out of what you do.” The term, which has no direct English translation, describes a mindset and associated strategies such as fewer (but more productive) working hours, flatter hierarchies, constant learning and a focus on happiness. “It should be a fulfilling experience going to work. You also want to be in an environment that encourages you to contribute, because then you feel you have more of a purpose.” Johansen, through projects with clients like the National Ballet of Canada, Mozilla and start-up incubator OneEleven, tries to create interiors that evoke the company’s culture and ultimately, cultivate joy. At OneEleven’s offices, they’ve integrated play by providing areas and the impetus for employees to “physically build stuff, to stimulate in a different way,” said Johansen. “I think that a little bit of play in a day lets you laugh and connect with your coworkers in a different way. That’s what we are seeing is happening.”
Johansen concedes that there’s been a shift, between millennials and previous generations, in their attitudes toward work and the workplace. “They work in a different way than they did 20 years ago. So, it’s actually complex for companies that have both generations within the same space; they expect different things within the environment,” she said. “[The millennials] are definitely more demanding because they want to be fulfilled. We all want to have a deeper meaning.” And improvements to the workplace, in Johansen’s experience, can help deliver on that fulfillment. “People feel seen, that’s a big part too… I don’t like using [the term] human capital, but that’s really what it is about,” she said.
For Heather Steele, Communications Director at Ubisoft Toronto, their space, all 35,000 square feet (per floorplate) in the city’s up-and-coming Junction neighbourhood, is about supporting that human capital, especially as talent is increasingly harder to attract. The studio, established in 2010, has had the benefit of some time to assess what environmental features are important and those that aren’t, and according to Steele, the space is a constant work-in-progress (with learnings from one floor finding application on the next and so forth).
As an example, Steele points to the tire swings that once occupied a fair amount of space in the studio, but were not well used. “Sure, they look cool, they make for great photos, but if the teams are not using them and don’t feel that they’re useful, why do we have them?” The studio replaced those swings with other fun, more flexible features, like ping pong tables for blowing off steam and getting perspective on problems. HR advisors, embedded within the teams, and more formal feedback sessions with the Improvement Crew help Steele understand what’s working, what’s not — and what’s on the employees’ wish lists.
The average age at the Ubisoft Toronto studio is 34 or 35, older than you might expect. “That shows there are people who are making a career of this, they’re more mature, they have a lot of experience and a certain level of expectation,” said Steele. “They’re not looking for a frat house.”
For the leading video game creator and publisher, fun is business and there’s a place for play at work. But while abandoned playgrounds and empty tire swings might make for a good set piece for one of their games, they don’t make for a great work environment.
“We have really shifted out thinking, it’s evolved with our team, but I do think the days of adding elements to be cool are done. I think it’s a waste of money and it’s not beneficial to keeping your team happy and productive. You can still do really amazing, creative things, but I think we do them with more intent than we’ve ever done in the past,” said Steele.