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Stuck? Pass the Play-Doh

If you need to unlock employee creativity, try taking them to a playful workspace.
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When Michael Sachs, founder of the health care consulting firm Sg2, wants to hold a quick everyday meeting, he heads to the bland boardroom in his Evanston, Ill., headquarters. But when big ideas and greater collaboration are needed, Sachs takes a portion of his 80 employees to a whimsical space in downtown Chicago called Catalyst Ranch.

The meeting rooms at Catalyst Ranch have exposed brick and brightly colored walls decorated with paintings by local artists, Polish wycinanki paper cuttings, and rich fabrics from Haiti. An array of knickknacks—sculptures, figurines, Matchbox cars, finger puppets—line bookshelves. Kitschy blue couches, purple lamps, and orange, green, and yellow chairs surround throw rugs and coffee tables. Scattered about are whiteboards, markers, pens, and paper, as well as quirky sundries such as wigs, Hula-Hoops, and Play-Doh. "If you're trying to get people to think different, sometimes you've got to take them someplace different, says Sachs.

A handful of meeting spaces like Catalyst Ranch, most of which have opened in the past few years, operate in the U.S. Though unaffiliated, they share common decor themes, which is to say they all resemble kindergarten classrooms. The spaces are awash in natural light, done in bold colors, and filled with comfy chairs and an assortment of toys. They typically handle groups of about 30 people and rent for between $850 and $1,800 for a daylong meeting. That price generally covers audio-visual equipment, snacks and beverages, use of a copier, and free Wi-Fi access. Some locations will even provide karaoke machines, Foosball tables, and PlayStation 2 consoles (although it's unclear how many groundbreaking ideas have come from playing Grand Theft Auto).

Kenneth Smith takes employees of his Pittsburgh-based work force training and consulting firm, H.B. Maynard, to a meeting space called Inspiration Point for team-building exercises. Smith says the relaxed atmosphere helps his staff open up more and forget the pressures of the office. It seems all it takes is a few Play-Doh snakes.

Here are a few places designed to get the creative juices flowing

Catalyst Ranch
Chicago
(312) 207-1710
catalystranch.com

Thinkubator
Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich.
(312) 829-2852
solutionpeople.com/thinkubator.htm

WorkShop
Louisville
(502) 899-9225
creativeworkplace.com

Sparkspace
Columbus, Ohio
(614) 224-7727
sparkspace.com




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