Imagine finding out your first day at new job that there will be three company parties (during work hours) within your first month, and that every all-hands meeting includes a friendly video game competition. Or coming to work, opening your email, seeing a negative note from a client and, instead of sulking, standing up and dancing with your coworkers for five minutes between your cubicles. Or planning your summer vacation around your company's annual camping trip—because the games of beach volleyball with your coworkers are not to be missed.
These are three experiences—orchestrated by The Emazing Group, Punto Space and Freshbooks, respectively—are evidence of business owners embracing the concept of play in the workplace—a topic that is getting more attention than ever as companies compete for talent in today's competitive workforce.
“Our employees really appreciate our playful culture," says Brian Lim, founder and CEO of The Emazing Group, the Anaheim, California-based umbrella organization that includes festival-focused consumer brands such as Emazing Lights, iHeartRaves and Into The AM—also known as the company that holds frequent parties and includes video game competitions as part of its all-hands meetings. “I feel like some folks come from really toxic working environments; it's like they have PTSD.
“When they compare our company culture to some of their previous companies, they comment that many of their past employers didn't care about culture, that they never had fun in the office and no one recognized employee birthdays," he continues. "They crave those elements."
Debora Balardini echoes Lim's sentiments on the importance of having fun in the office, and takes it a step further.
“Its about expressing your humanity at work," says Balardini, founder of Punto Space, a New York City-based event space, as well as Nettles Artists Collective and Brazilian theater company Group.BR. “It's about raising the vibration."
After hiring her first few employees—many from the corporate sector—Balardini, a longtime performing artist, was noticing a trend: Staffers were so heads-down that they were forgetting to have fun during the day. And when urged to take breaks and enjoy themselves, Balardini was being met with strange looks.
“I'd sense the need for a change of energy in the office, so I'd ask my team to stop what they were doing and do something fun, like watch a funny video or dance in the office or listen to a beautiful song," she says. “At first people felt a little awkward about it, but they soon started to enjoy it because it had so many benefits."
Being playful at work allows you to better understand the person working next to you; it helps increase positive communication, which then builds bonds and inspires people to do better work.
–Brian Lim, founder and CEO of The Emazing Group
The first benefit: a palpable shift in energy.
“When you move the energy in the room, whatever is stale goes away, and everyone feels a little more uplifted," she says. “You remove yourself from the problem—even for just five minutes—and can come back to work with a fresh mind."
The second benefit: more positive communication.
Within a few weeks of launching her office-wide dance breaks, Balardini was noticing a change in staffer energy throughout the day. “We communicate with our bodies all the time," she says. “If I'm stiff and coming to a meeting where people's bodies are uptight, there won't be a healthy flow of communication."
Today, dance/fun breaks are an everyday occurrence, and Balardini says she and her team looks forward to the lighthearted interruptions.
Nearly 500 miles northwest, in Toronto, the team at accounting software company Freshbooks also embraces play in the office; it was a theme established in the early days of the organization.
“Play has always been a big part of our culture," says Levi Cooperman, co-founder and vice president of operations. “Back when we started, we didn't have the stereotypical startup mentality of working nights and weekends. We went home at night and took the weekends off to enjoy life. Really early on, we were working in [co-founder and CEO] Mike's [McDerment] parent's basement, and on nice days we'd take breaks and play [with a flying disc] outside.
“Looking back, those breaks eased our minds and improved our creativity and productivity as a result," he continues.
Today, the company—which employs more than 280 people—counts fun among its corporate values, and does things like rent a children's camp for a weekend every June and invites employees (“Freshbookers") to bring their families. During the rest of the year, the company works to keep the mood light with parties for Halloween (“Freshoween") and the December holidays (“Freshtivus").
How to Infuse More Play in Your Company (And Why You Should Care)
Entrepreneurs have a lot of their minds, not the least of which is how to attract and keep customers and maintain quality. So why should they care about incorporating play in the workplace?
“Being playful at work allows you to better understand the person working next to you; it helps increase positive communication, which then builds bonds and inspires people to do better work," says Lim. “It's human nature; when you have a better relationship with someone, you tend to be more compassionate and understanding, which can only help a work environment."
So how can you make your culture more playful? Here are a few ideas:
Embrace silliness. “Don't be afraid of losing your authority; by playing you won't lose respect, you will gain it," says Balardini. “Don't be afraid to say, 'I'm human and I cry over awful emails, too.' You might think, 'I'm being silly.' But remember: Silly is human."
Create a culture committee. “Get representation from different departments, and make sure you have a C-suite champion onboard," says Lim. “Plan events for the company, and get feedback from employees after each event on how to make it even more fun next time."
Get out of the way. “Let your employees have fun and build traditions that can help your culture," says Cooperman. “Doing this will allow them enjoy their work much more than if you put processes and controls on fun."
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