Fun workplace

Work hard and play harder: Creating a fun workspace while maintaining productivity

By Leah Polakoff

Free food, nap pods, video games… and puppies? Companies all over the country are copying the Google-like workspace, eliminating the traditional suit and tie and 9-to-5 office day, and adding in perks that please everyone’s inner child. While businesses that have followed this trend are often rewarded with sky-scraping employment satisfaction ratings, we have to ask, is this new-age environment hurting or helping productivity? It’s time to figure out if your company should get with the casual program.

All work, all play

For Matt Doud, president and co-founder of Planit, having a creative workspace is a must. At Planit headquarters in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, employees have access to video games, putting greens, pool tables and even a fully-stocked bar.

“I really believe that your physical environment, which you have full control over, can positively influence how you work and the output that your team does,” Doud says. “Companies that don’t take advantage of their physical space are missing a huge opportunity to have happier employees, more motivated employees, smarter employees, better output, more commitment [and] less turnover. It’s a really strong tool that I don’t think enough companies take advantage of.”

But don’t say Planit is a “fun” place to work. “I don’t want to say it’s a fun place to work, because it’s not about having fun,” Doud says. “It’s a relaxed environment that fosters creativity.”

Michael J. Tews, assistant professor of hospitality management at Pennsylvania State University, has dedicated his research to workplace environments and fun in the workplace. His research shows companies that offer a fun workplace tend to have better coworker relationships and lower turnover. But what qualifies as a “fun” work environment?

“Fun is multidimensional,” Tews says. “There are four key components: activities, manager support, coworker socializing and fun job responsibilities.”

These four components of fun are essential in the recruiting process, Tews says. In a 2011 study on collegiate job seekers, Tews found that millennials valued fun over compensation and opportunities for advancement when applying for jobs.

It’s not for everyone

But Tews also adds that a fun workspace may only work for certain companies, like those focused on creative products and a younger population. Joel Charkatz, director and shareholder at KatzAbosch in Baltimore, has doubts about video games and pool tables in an accounting firm.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find an accounting firm of any size that has those types of, I’ll call them distractions,” Charkatz says. “Those types of amenities work best in a creative environment. And while accounting can be creative, it’s not an environment that’s comparable to Google or Apple or any software development company.”

For advertising agencies like Planit, an inventive environment will inspire employees to produce quality work.

“We’re in the business of inspiring people, we’re in the business of storytelling [and] we’re in the business of inventing new things in this era of technology,” Doud says. “If we were a bunch of walled-off offices with leather chairs and mahogany walls, that wouldn’t be a very creative environment, so we wouldn’t produce creative output…We need to be bold, innovative and aggressive. I’m a huge believer that your physical office space can influence how you work.”

Peter Granat, CEO of Cision, believes having a high-energy work environment allows his employees to work hard and play hard. At the Cision office in Beltsville, MD, employees can enjoy a gym complete with fitness classes, basketball courts, fresh fruit every morning, a candy and dessert bar, and Starbucks and Peets coffee shops in the office.

“It’s full of energy and [a] very flexible work environment,” Granat says. “And I think we’ve incorporated … the opportunity to have a good balance between working hard and playing hard.”

To Granat, creating a creative workspace isn’t just about pleasing the employees. It’s about building an environment where people want to come to work.

“The people that you work with and the environment you work in is a big decision as to where you want to spend your time,” Granat says. People spend most of their time at work, he added. Having a fun work environment ensures people will enjoy their time at work.

Productivity pause

While companies like Planit and Cision may maintain high retention rates, a relaxed work environment could be harmful to other businesses, like KatzAbosch. Tews says the success rate of a Google-like office depends on the business environment and what the company is trying to achieve.

“In terms of whether fun is good or bad, I found that it’s a little bit of both,” Tews says. “Sometimes it can have a negative impact on productivity because it’s a little bit of a time waster.”

While Charkatz offers his employees free food during tax season, he says too many perks would simply disturb the work day. “We have a lot of work to get done in a very compacted period of time,” Charkatz says. “It would be a distraction.”

Doud agrees that the putting greens and video games can take a toll on productivity, but his employees balance fun and success.

“I don’t think it hurts us,” Doud says. “It’s important that we’ve got to be a successful business, but we’ve got to enjoy the ride. If we focus too much on having fun, then we won’t be successful. But if we focus too much on being successful, then it’s an awful process.”

Granat manages to balance fun by implementing an open office environment. He says this new design is similar to social media: Everything you’re doing is in front of other people, so you can be held accountable. By redesigning the facilities, people have designated social areas and designated individual workspaces.

“We try to give clear goals, and depending on the different teams, people are measured in different ways. It can be distracting though, so we try to limit that,” Granat says. “What we’ve done to the design of the facilities is try to put the social areas in the center and try to force people to congregate and meet in the design itself. Then when you go back to your desk, you don’t have the social environment.”

Consider employees of all ages

But many employees find this type of workspace to be a challenge. Through his research, Tews has found that millennials value fun more than older employees do. If you’re considering implementing more fun activities, Tews says to focus on the office environment and the type of people in the workplace.

“As you get older, people don’t necessarily want fun in the workplace,” Tews says. “Sometimes they just want to go to work and get out. So there is resistance to fun sometimes based on age and personality type. You really have to focus on the environment. Think strategically about what you’re doing because it can backfire.”

For people like Charkatz, even after-work activities can be a distraction.

“Come March 18, if you give me the choice of going out and bowling or staying here and dealing with some tax issues, my personal preference would be to stay here and deal with these things,” Charkatz says. “That’s the outlook of our folks on the most part.”

Doud says an important part of keeping employees happy is knowing your demographics. One person’s interest may be another person’s worst nightmare.

“We’re all different. And what you like to do might be different than what I like to do,” Doud says. “I’m 48 and a lot of the people here are in their 20s. I bet what they like to do is different than what I want to do.”

Doud caters to the different age levels in the Planit office by planning a wide range of activities. In June, the office was closed for a day while the entire staff went to a campsite to participate in games such as dodgeball and relay races on inflatable obstacle courses. But sometimes the activities are calmer, such as meeting for Happy Hour.

Work is challenging when it’s all work and no play, says Tews. And he’s a firm believer that fun in the workplace can work well.

“Who doesn’t like fun? But keep in mind that fun is in the eye of the beholder,” Tews says. “Some things work better than others, and you need to know the characteristics of your employees, like personality and age difference. Have a goal in mind that you’re trying to achieve, and measure the outcome.”

All in all, the workplace is meant to be a place to get work done. But if you think your office is one where implementing a little fun into the day will please the employees and help them be more productive, finding the right balance and right employees will help kick-start a more relaxed environment, and ultimately, more relaxed employees.

“I think culturally we have created a place that is very good at self-policing the fun,” Doud says. “I truly believe at the end of the day [you need to ask] what do you need from your job? I come here first and foremost for what? I think [employees] want to be challenged… but you want to have fun doing it. I don’t think one has to come at the expense of the other.”




Interested in fusing fun and the workday but don’t know where to start?

Consider surveying your employees to find out what their interests are, and then setting a goal for the company, suggests Michael J. Tews, assistant professor of hospitality management at Pennsylvania State University.

Do you want to integrate more team bonding activities into the year for a stronger relationship among employees? Or would you rather provide a relaxing outlet in the office where people can relieve stress during a rough day? Use this three-step plan to determine what type of fun will best satisfy your employees:

1. Conduct an employee attitude survey.

Use this survey to find out how satisfied people are with various aspects of their job. Are there any problems in the workplace? What projects are people excelling on? Use these answers to set a goal for your office and determine what activities will be best to execute that plan.

2. Implement those activities.

Determine what kind of fun is relevant to your employees. Tews stresses that fun should actually be fun, and that can take different forms. Plan a few varying types of activities and see which one receives the best feedback.

3. Evaluate the results.

Perform a similar survey to the one at the beginning, and find out if satisfaction has improved or if people’s weak spots have gotten stronger. Compare sales performance, employee satisfaction, or whatever factor matters to you, at the beginning and end and adjust your plan of fun accordingly.