Room for Debate
For do unconventional office spaces with pingpong tables and open floor plans really boost productivity?
It’s easy to suffer workplace envy when you hear about office environments like Google’s. In the web-search giant’s various outposts, it’s perfectly common for employees to have access to bicycles to ride to meetings, outdoor volleyball courts, pool tables, pianos, massage chairs and large inflatable balls. Lots of smaller companies have followed Google’s lead, jazzing up their headquarters with amenities like the indoor skating park at Charlotte-based screen printer Ink Floyd and the Wii lounge and giant jungle gym at Evolution Bureau, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco.
If your company is looking for ways to boost productivity and improve morale, you may be wondering if adding lava lamps and a foosball table will help. See what the experts have to say before you make the decision.
PRO - MIKE MITCHELL
President of Mitchell Innovation + Research, an innovation and market research consultancy in Chicago and Dayton
“Many offices today are based on a hierarchical organization, with the worker bees in cubes and the managers in spaces along the walls and windows. Based on my experience in advising Fortune 500 companies, those types of conventional environments don’t encourage anyone to think outside the box. I strongly believe that unconventional workspaces and diversions like pingpong tables can help employees become more productive and creative. A fresh perspective and new stimuli can spark innovative thinking.
“Case in point: About 18 months ago, I ran a product ideation session for a client in the beverage industry that was trying to revitalize a brand that had lost steam. We divided the employees into two groups. One team worked in an ordinary conference room, while the other convened in the company’s game room, because those two spaces happened to be available at the time. The big joke among us was that people in the play area weren’t doing their work. But when they came back to present, they had actually been more productive and returned with a larger quantity of creative solutions to the problem.
“Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile’s extensive research into creativity in the workplace supports what I’ve observed. Her findings, gathered over many years, show that encouraging fun, teamwork and spontaneity is very important to innovation.
“When clients ask me how to set up their offices, I usually recommend creating a workspace that combines conventional and unconventional ingredients. There should be offices or cubicles, where employees can get their daily work done, and nontraditional elements, such as a ‘dreaming space’ with an inspiring view or décor, where individuals or small groups can relax and work uninterrupted on problems.”
CON - LAWRENCE POLSKY
Managing partner of PeopleNRG, a Princeton, NJ, consulting firm
“When it comes to improving employees’ productivity, alternative workspaces are not the answer. Great leadership is. Managers have to find ways to motivate employees with what they say and do, not with furniture.
“At the big companies I advise, executives have asked me if renovating their offices to make them more unconventional will improve business results. I have often found that all it does is create anxiety. For instance, I once coached a company where the scientific researchers were moved from offices to an open floor plan. Top management thought it would encourage more communication. Wrong. The researchers were heavy thinkers who were used to working on their own. It was a bit difficult for them to adjust to working in a room where they could easily overhear each other’s conversations. The anxiety they felt undermined any positive impact. Rather than tear down walls to improve communication, the management needed to learn how to have the right conversations with employees and hold better meetings.
“As for bringing ‘fun’ elements like pingpong tables into the workspace, I’m skeptical of their value. I once worked with a large bank operations facility in New York City that had a huge lounge and pingpong table. Nobody used them. I also recently consulted for a young software firm with a pingpong table that sat ignored in the back of the office in a dark space. It was more of a monument to what the company was trying to be. The reality is that encouraging break room tournaments isn’t going to help your company achieve better sales. According to a study of 500,000 people by one of our strategic partners, eePulse, if you want to create a productive environment, it is far more important to manage in a way that gets people to feel energized and to experience a sense of urgency at work. That means giving employees challenging work; valuing their input and ideas; creating a sense of ownership for results; and using fair rewards and recognition. It’s not as easy as hiring someone to turn a spare office into a game room—but it works.”