Workplace design: Where play gets serious
| August 22, 2018
By now, the notion of designing playful workspaces or spaces at work for play is no longer novel. Some of the world’s top companies are renowned for providing playful environments for their workers and have testified to the many ways they benefit the company by enhancing employee satisfaction and encouraging creativity and camaraderie.
But, as recent research shows, there is also a serious side to play at work that is embedded in these designs, tying them closely to the bottom line.
Since the early 1990s, as the knowledge economy took hold, organizational development researchers have touted the many benefits of allowing for some degree of play in the workplace. In the new team-oriented organization, consultants led groups through various types of games, play activities and out-of-the office excursions or retreats to spark creativity, rejuvenate enthusiasm, align goals and objectives, and build social connections and trust.
Then, around the turn of the current decade, came the youth-oriented Silicon Valley high-tech companies, with their work hard/play hard ethos. To drive innovation and stay ahead of the fast-paced competition, employers looked for ways to keep their workers fresh and juiced-up while remaining on site for long hours engaged in highly demanding knowledge work, such as engineering, programming and coding.
Along with the free food, Red Bull and candy, Ping-Pong and foosball tables, basketball hoops, video game consoles, and recreational areas populated with bean bag chairs and various distractions became de rigueur for new startups.
Today’s workplace play spaces are much more sophisticated. A recent article on arts-oriented website Artsy noted, "To keep up with the speed of modern development, more and more companies today are tapping the expertise of architects and designers to develop bespoke offices that foster productivity, innovation, and creativity."
The article highlights seven such workplaces created for companies like Microsoft, Autodesk, Viacom, Kickstarter, and Lego.
One of the interesting things about the spaces featured in the article is how they differ according to each company’s corporate culture and definition of what constitutes acceptable play. This is where play at work gets serious.
Corporate America has come to realize that giving employees permission and places to play not only helps to stimulate their creativity and build camaraderie, it also boosts overall employee engagement, satisfaction and wellness, and aids in employee recruitment and retention — all of which ultimately contribute to the bottom line. However, designed into these spaces are boundaries to keep the level of play in check.
A study published earlier this year conducted by A&D firm Perkins Eastman, "Not Just Child’s Play: How Playful Environments Contribute to Innovation," examines the various elements and strategies designed into these spaces to encourage "productive play." That is, play which promotes behaviors, attitudes and moods that help keep innovation and the objectives of the company moving forward.
As the authors state in conclusion, "Play is fun, but it’s not just fun." Companies are not just interested in keeping employees happy and relaxed. They want to drive them harder to innovate, perform at a higher level, and be more productive.
The report points to three ways that design for play supports these goals by promoting employees’ sense of empowerment, collaboration and respect for differences in working and learning styles.
Based on their analysis of a range of internet images of offices designed for play, a pair of researchers at Linnaeus University in Sweden identified four archetypes that inform most of these designs: outdoors (spaces with greenery and nature views); home (using elements of residential design); nightlife (creating spaces similar to restaurants, cafes, bars, and clubs); and childhood (amusement park or playground equipment and imagery).
A review of the spaces featured in the Artsy article mentioned above shows how companies tend to lean toward one of these archetypes depending on their corporate cultures. The spaces reinforce values and limits by shaping behaviors.
In addition, the researchers, Anna Alexandersson and Viktorija Kalonaityte, find in these design preferences underlying political or hierarchical values implicit in the corporate culture. They conclude that aside from whatever positive messages these spaces may send employees, they also reinforce traditional corporate values, such as "subordination of employee imagination and self to the agendas of the employer."
Play, by its nature, challenges boundaries and hierarchies, can be irreverent, and at times can devolve into rebellion or anarchy. Playful workspaces must maintain a balance to encourage what the Perkins Eastman researchers call "productive play." All play and no work makes Jack or Jill a liability.
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