How companies can find balance between work and play

In recent years companies have been trying to inject more of the fun factor into the workplace.

Slides instead of stairs, swings to help creative ideas “flow,” games rooms packed with lunchtime entertainment options and even champagne buttons on desks for workers in a new London office.

What began as a tech industry trend has gone mainstream. More companies are creating playful space to help people unwind, engage and think outside the box. While modern office design and perks may provide a unique conversation starter—and even a unique selling point for potential employees, some companies are struggling to strike the right balance between work and play.

Many companies are questioning the value of these spaces and they are finding that what worked for tech giants may not work for them. The reason, of course, is culture. All offices need informal spaces for employees to take a break. Not every office needs a pool table.

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From professional to playful

Office design has evolved rapidly in the last few decades. Traditional office spaces reflected the factory floor and the assembly line model. HBR’s Research during the 1980s indicated 85% of people needed space to concentrate and focus. Workplaces followed suit ushering in rows of cellular workspaces and cubicles.

Through the early- to late-1990s, businesses became more agile. The need for cross-functional collaboration, global connectivity and teamwork increased. A workplace that over-emphasized individual delivery no longer worked. Workplaces that supported collaboration began producing better results.

The next wave of research at the turn of century hinted at two things: highly engaged employees were more productive and millennials, motivated by a different value system, would make up a significant part of the workforce. Companies began to scramble for solutions to engage people, boost productivity and attract the millennial talent pool.

Injecting a sense of play into the workplace was seen as the answer. Office space design has been more and more inspired by the success of tech companies and their fun workplaces. But as companies try to stand out from the crowd not all have been successful. Many employees working in open plan offices find playful elements to be more of a distraction than anything.

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Achieving the right mix

Workplace surveys such as Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work suggest that the top companies are successful because their workplaces include a mix of work and play. But a closer look tells a very different story.

Correlation does not necessarily mean causation—especially in the workplace.

Work environments reflect culture; they do not create it.

Employees of the top rated companies on Glassdoor’s survey cite career progression, learning and openness of teams and culture as reasons they’re engaged. The workplace and its elements of play hardly warranted a mention.

That’s not to say that these play elements were not relevant, but “good design is invisible,” explains Michelle McLaughlin, Client Development, Project and Development Services, JLL Canada. “Good design enables users. It is purposeful and thoughtful, but it’s unobtrusive to their work.”

In other words, good workplace design can express its culture without trying so hard to sell it. “Organizations that integrate culture-first design principles that articulate existing philosophies and values are more likely to meet with success,” says McLaughlin.

Google’s workplace, for example, reflects its ambition “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world”. Unorthodox workplaces reflect unorthodox thinking, but companies can’t expect to replicate a Google-like workplace and expect Google-like results. Instead, the workplace needs to reflect what its organization and its people desire, according to McLaughlin.

Recent research suggests people are more interested in workplace privacy, the ability to concentrate without distraction and comfortable furniture and less about perks like beer taps and ping-pong tables.

For companies, that poses the question of how much space and budget should be devoted to break-out areas and settings that encourage play? There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all model to securing the right combination.

Finding the right balance of elements that support work along with relaxation and fun, requires deliberate examination of each individual company. The sweet spot is often where culture and business can coexist.

version of this article originally appeared on our sister site, JLL Real Views.



About the author

About the author

Ram Srinivasan, Head of Consulting, Canada
Specializing in the areas of strategic cost reduction, multi-geography business strategy and strategic change management.


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