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How Forward-Thinking Companies Play It Forward

April 22, 2013
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Related Topics: Talent Management(2), Motivating Employees, Retention, Talent Management
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Google slide
Google's slide in Zurich.

All work and no play …

That seems to be the motto at many companies.

So let me introduce you to a concept I'm going to call "play it forward." With all due respect to Kevin Spacey and the crew on the set of Pay It Forward, play it forward is when you allow people to have fun on the job and, in turn, workers give back to the company with that magical buzzword: innovation.

Back in high school, I worked for a sporting goods retailer. I took my job seriously, and worked hard to keep the customers happy by learning as much as I could about the products. After all, I wanted to earn that minimum wage. But even with a stellar record, one day I almost got sent home early.

It was an hour or two before closing on a Friday night, and the store was empty. A couple of co-workers about my age decided to throw a Nerf football around in the back of the store to break up the monotony of a slow night, so I joined in. Predictably, the ball bounced all over the place, but there were no breakables in the area or customers in sight. It was fun, but it was wrong. And I knew better.

Our manager was not pleased when he saw what was happening. He yelled at us and told us all to go home. I apologized, and he didn't follow through on his order—probably because he realized that if we all went home he'd have to perform all of the closing duties himself.

Looking back on it now, I don't think my manager was wrong, but he wasn't right either. Yes, decorum in the workplace is essential. Yes, there's always "something" to do, but what's wrong with having a little fun at the office? What we were doing was not productive, but what if it led to an idea of having someone periodically play catch with customers or some sort of football-throwing competition with prizes and it boosted sales?

The National Institute for Play says: "As play is woven into the fabric of social practices, we will dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, the education we provide our children and the capacity of our corporations to innovate."

I couldn't agree more. Playing is all about imagination, which is where innovation comes to play.

It was refreshing to read a recent CNN story that talked about some of the companies out there that embrace fun, like YouTube with its slide. And if you want to see something that looks like a whole lot of fun, check out Google's office in Zurich. Tell me you wouldn't feel inspired traversing those halls on a daily basis. Of course fun has its limits. If you see "Bob" sitting on the couch playing video games all day and missing deadlines, then it's pretty clear "Bob" can't come out and play anymore.

In decades past, many companies took a "you can't have fun at the old workplace" approach to their workers. Maybe I'm basing this too much on what I saw on the tube as a kid, but my vision of bosses in the 1960s, for example, is more Mr. Mooney than Lieutenant McHale. That mentality seemed to change when the Internet took over in the mid- to late '90s before the dot-com bubble burst. At that time, any inspiration seemed to lead to jubilation—and a whole bunch of venture capital funds to boot, but that's another story.

Today, it seems companies have regressed. For instance, recently a group of Australian miners were reportedly fired for doing the Harlem Shake while on duty. Sure safety is paramount, but this action seems extreme, don't you think?

With U.S. unemployment still at 7.6 percent, some workers might feel at risk if they take risks since there's an "everyone's replaceable" attitude that seems to permeate the workforce. And even if companies do offer outlets for fun, as the CNN story says, unless companies embrace this "It's OK to have fun on the job attitude," worried workers might be hesitant to partake anyway.

Google seems to have the play-it-forward concept down pat. Think about the Google Doodle. The concept is pretty simple; it's just a picture or interactive scene that pays homage to a person or event. How many companies do you know that would employ people to do such a thing? And yet, Google has a whole team of "doodlers" who create the cool graphics you periodically see on Google. In return, the company gets recognition. Lots of it. Just look at how many news outlets wrote about Google's recent Earth Day interactive doodle. Or you can read about how McDonald's takes an Iron Chef-like approach to innovation. Indeed, having fun on the job seems to be the secret ingredient in teamwork, camaraderie and innovation.

Go ahead, play it forward …

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames.

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