The Value Of Play At Work


Workplace Design Promotes The Collective Genius
Google and Pixar’s not so secret, secret weapon is that having fun is very good for business, and they have the metrics to prove it. If you want to increase innovation, promote solutions and enhance creativity, build a workspace that encourages play, collaboration, and casual collisions between employees. In addition to Google and Pixar, companies like Apple, Zappos, Cartoon Network, Adobe, Patagonia, leading gaming and design firms, and others believe that innovation and idea generation are organic processes that can be encouraged through the right workplace design and elements.

Steve Jobs was an early thought leader in this area and his effort to “promote encounters and unplanned collaborations” was the force behind his design of Pixar’s iconic atrium. His playful and play-filled design reduces barriers to meeting new people, elevates mood, increases optimism, and allows Pixar to take advantage of the collective genius of their workforce through intense collaboration.

This premise is now the work of Google’s People Operations Department as well as their Workplace Services Department, which are tasked with creating relationships and environments designed to maximize opportunities for organized and spontaneous interactions and play. Their work in designing physical spaces and engagements go directly to strengthening trust and communication and contribute to the physical and emotional health of its workforce, all of which reinforce productivity and earnings.

With this in mind, they “test everything from the floor to the ceiling” to provide the metrics to prove out every relationship and design element including color palates, building materials, graphics, food selection, nap spaces, exercise facilities, work stations, offices, meeting areas, beach volleyball, swimming pool, bicycles, games, building toys, visiting speakers, employee/boss interactions, etc. For example, Google’s metrics show that if a manager shows up on an employee’s first day of work, welcomes him and does a few other things, that employee will be 15% more productive in the first nine months. They also test for things as simple as which paint colors employees like best on walls, and it’s not purple.

“The philosophy is very simple,” Mr. Nevill-Manning, Google’s engineering director in Manhattan, said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did [in the recent design of the NYC workspace] was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.”

Nevill-Manning said, “he wouldn’t go so far as to say cost is no object, but software engineers “are incredibly productive on a square foot basis. Their value is enormous. It doesn’t cost that much to make them happy.” “Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks'” New York Times (March 15, 2013)

Play Is The Secret Sauce
If workplace design is Google’s secret weapon, then encouraging play is their secret sauce. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, psychologist and founder of the National Institute for Play, play is a state of being, not driven or compulsive, but purposeless and voluntary, which gives one a sense of freedom from time and the opportunity to explore possibilities. The outcome of play is happiness, joy, connectedness and trust. Play is not anarchy, however. Play has rules, especially when it’s group play. There is a code that is negotiated and agreed upon that leads to trust and productive play.

Therefore, it stands to reason that play within the workplace is not considered an alcohol or drug fueled party where people let their hair down, blow off steam, and throw rules out the window. That is a party, not play, and can lead to less productivity and reduced trust.

The power of play is acknowledged by evolutionary neuroscientists who believe that the human limbic system and the ancient portion of the cortex responsible for survival are hardwired for play as a mechanism to test and adapt to changing conditions. So, the value and power of play is foundational to the earliest humans and contributed not only to their survival but also to their successful evolution.

Dr. Brown believes that “when you are fully engaged in play, you lose some of your psychological barriers and you stop censoring or editing your thoughts. This allows creative ideas to flow more freely” while you “explore possibilities,” which is extremely helpful in problem solving and idea generation.

According to Fast Company Magazine, researchers believe that the ability to associate unrelated ideas and concepts in new ways can generate breakthroughs in innovation.” Clay Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma, has found that a cognitive skill called “associational thinking” can lead to this sort of disruptive innovation.” Simply put, it is the act of associating or connecting seemingly unrelated concepts to form new ideas or innovative solutions, and play frees the mind up to create these new connections. Play also promotes the formation of strong trust-based friendships which also contributes to risk taking and supports creativity and innovation.

Play can be individualized or occur in groups and take the form of (1) motor/physical play, (2) social play, (3) constructive play, (4) fantasy play, or (5) games with rules. For instance, building with blocks or props can contribute to the innovation of a physical product or software platform. Or, role-playing can contribute to understanding how a patient feels in an emergency room or how a customer feels interacting with a customer service representative.

Finally, play and collaboration contribute to the overall success of a company and should be thoughtfully incorporated into the design and systems of modern workplaces.


“Inside Pixar: The Fun Factory,” Nightline’s tour inside the animation studio” VIDEO

“Inside Google Workplaces, From Perks to Nap Pods” VIDEO

“Tim Brown: Tales of Creativity and Play” TED Talks VIDEO

“Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks'” New York Times

Monsters University: What’s It Like To Work At Pixar?” Telegraph

“10 Office Designs Tips To Foster Creativity” Inc. Magazine

“16 Stimulating Design Offices To Stir The Senses” Creative Blog

“Work Hard, Play Harder: Fun at Work Boosts Creativity, Productivity,” FoxNews

“3 Ideas For Cultivating Creativity At Work,” Fast Company