Why do serious businesses offer distractions that were once seen as frivolous?

Share this

We know that tech companies use ping pong and foosball as recruitment tools, and gimmicks like slides and swings in the workplace are part legend and part standing joke. Now even stodgy firms are making gestures to make work look like fun. Games and entertainment are allowed space in offices. We can, of course, blame California – but now it’s part of the offer everywhere, from Shanghai to Bangalore, where you are likely to get hit by a ping pong ball as you step out of the lift – and it’s happening in London.

So let’s look at a good reason for doing this. Employers might recognise the need to relax and believe it helps productivity, and possibly retain talent. But the more intriguing reason is about community.

Community is largely about inclusion, and although playing games is a great excuse for bonding, an even better one is the universal attraction of food and drink. Everyone can join in, nobody says it’s not really their bag, and there are no complicated rules or skills.

Already, in many firms, the canteen has expanded to a much wider offer to encourage people to linger and talk. Traditional tea-points are growing into sophisticated watering holes, coffee machines are becoming kitchenettes with microwaves and toasters, where you spend more time with people.

Improved catering makes people happy, and employers are pleased that workers are not roaming the streets, wasting time looking for a sandwich. But this is not the main payback, it actually improves innovation, and here is how.

A few years ago I had to write a brief for a ‘knowledge centre’ in a research campus. This was supposed to be a place for scientists to interact and exploit the knowledge that they each held between their ears – a sort of sharing facility.

“You don’t converse with people more than five or six feet away, so get people into an intimate space, not a generous one”

 

It didn’t get built. The idea of sharing was not in their DNA but the seed of an idea had been planted in me – clever people are even cleverer when they learn from each other – an obvious fact of life, but not that easy to do.

The exact same question about knowledge sharing reappeared a year ago, but this time we used a different model. It was based on research that shows how people are willing to share information and intellectual property with others if they are connected socially. Simple things like knowing their names, having enjoyed a drink together, knowing a bit about each other’s families or hobbies. This is interesting, but not shocking.

More useful is the fact that this sort of social network can be exploited and cultivated by the simple fact of proximity.

In other words, both social and intellectual intercourse depend on conversation, and you don’t converse with people more than five or six feet away, so get people into an intimate space, not a generous one. This is a big change in focus from giving people functional space for specific activities. It is not fun, or collaboration, and it is certainly not ‘activity based working’. We are appealing to a completely different sort of creative interaction.

At the same time, we make the space somewhere people want to go. Forget the wipe-down frugality of the cafeteria, and the greyness of a vanilla office. Aim for variety, texture, colour, scale – deliver what designers are trained to do: ambience.

And there must be food and drink to lubricate the social machinery.

So we come the full circle, back to offering facilities that don’t look like work, a bit more like fun, but now with a deadly serious purpose – to promote the need to share knowledge.

We can put all these lessons together to create a design formula for knowledge sharing that can be used anywhere, and generate a particular ambience and density, for working and socialising at the same time.

It works for organisations which possess a trusting and professional culture, and which can see the benefits for innovation. In our office we christened this approach ‘the convivial workplace’, and the name has stuck – for the time being.