Play at Work

Posted by jlubans on November 15, 2016

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Caption: All smiles. The playful office. Photo by Jonathan Pow.

The title of a recent article, “Nerf guns, beds and beanbag areas: what makes a productive office?” begs a response.
Zombie-like, the notion that external motivators somehow are equal to internal motivators just won’t go away. Software firms in particular – perhaps because of the young workforce - appear particularly unable to separate the two.
BrightHR, the firm in this story, offers up not only nerf guns (don’t like your cubicle neighbor’s slurping his Ramden? Well, blast him!) but also, “space hoppers, scooters, games consoles and a ping pong table,” along with “football nets for impromptu penalty shoot outs and a 60-foot lawn in the middle of the oval shaped office with bean bags and tents for staff to crash in.”
I get the idea. You don’t want people freaking out from a boom or bust workload, so you divert them; more importantly, you give them places – while on the premises for those infamous 80-hour weeks – to go hide and sleep. There’s even a “double bed where exhausted team members can recharge with a power nap.” Maybe that’s what TVs jolly David Letterman had in mind with his dressing room boudoir for young female interns.
BrightHR is a British software firm that offers up HR tools to manage a workforce: “Lateness, sickness and long-term absence from work is challenging so our hr management system notifies managers instantly, enabling you to quickly organise relief staff and view absence patterns.”
So, they’ve designed tracking software, by which the over-extended middle manager can track her people, or as it is often termed, “human resources.” (Let's run this out a bit further. If the system can track the people in the organization, then why not install the data into robots who would counsel the "problem employee". So, here comes this hulking mass of silicone parts right out of R.U.R., wheels up to your cubicle and wants to talk. I imagine some workers might change their mis-behavin' ways. Far fetched? Maybe not. If the only thing left to middle managers is to manage the workforce - to impose discipline, to enforce it, to keep track of deviations - then a robot could do it and maybe even better at a much lower economic cost. That is, if it needs to be done at all. A good organization needs none of this oversight since there is abundant mutual respect and caring for individuals.)

Coding work is intense, no question, so recess into a playground environment may contribute to productivity.
Or, are the toys and tents merely masking a particularly grueling job?
From decades-ago-research we know what people want from work. Fred Emery found six motivators:
“Adequate elbow room for decision-making; Opportunity to learn at work; Variety in work; Mutual support and respect; Meaningfulness; and, A desirable future”
If the nerf guns help with any of these, I am all for them. Or, as one commenter put it: “If your job’s so massively shit you need a nerf gun and children's toys to make it tolerable you should be doing something else.”
The nerf article also looks at the open office space concept, aka, “cubicle land” or in some cases, “The Nowhere Office.
“A 2014 survey of 10,500 workers across 14 countries, … found that 69% of people were not satisfied with their working environment, in part due to a lack of privacy.”
I recall my colleague Don Riggs at Nova Southeastern University, insisting - over the architect’s objections – that all professional staff have private spaces with doors in a new building. He intuited, correctly, no one really wanted to be always on display (and never alone) when working.
Supposedly, the Open Office was to lead to better collaboration.
Stop and think. Was there a factual basis for this idea or was it something imagined by an architect based solely on his nostalgia for the sweet camaraderie he experienced with his project team on all-nighters in architecture school?
I’d guess, much like the evidence-less annual ritual of performance appraisal, it was someone’s persuasive but untested idea.
No, I am not indiscriminately finding fault; I’ve got more than a few personal examples of going off on unproductive tangents with zero evidence of an idea’s validity.
But, I did learn from those mistakes so am less likely to repeat them. So, question those latest, hottest ideas and ask to see the supportive data. Ask if productivity is being measured. Is there a before and after analysis? I am not talking about a happiness measure, I am referring instead to some measures, even anecdotal, that confirm better ideas are forthcoming from the playful office vs. the traditional office.
If not, maybe it is time to revisit and seek to implement Fred Emery’s findings on what workers really want.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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Comments

Posted by Simon on November 27, 2016  •  06:16:45

Technology has changed the world and changed our relationship with work and the workspace needs to change to reflect this.

We now live in an 'always on' world where we answer emails, work from home etc even when we write on social media we need to think about how it will be perceived and the impact it could have on our careers.

Plus younger adults use play in a way that would have been considered juvenile in previous generations. Play stimulates creativity and innovation. This is especially important for the knowledge economy.

Probably more to the point, employers are competing for the best employees in a way they never have before. Employees can now anonymously 'shop' for roles like they never could before, if they're not happy they can move on, this costs businesses a fortune. So it's more cost effective for employers to try to get their employees to love working for them.

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