I once was the perpetrator of a kidnapping and ransom -- of a stapler.
The incident happened shortly after I graduated from university and started a new job. I was still new and nervous, and while there was nothing particularly interesting or unique about the office, the people were kind and very welcoming. One day, I borrowed a stapler from a desk, unbeknownst to the stapler owner, and absent-mindedly forgot to replace it. When the owner started asking questions about her stapler whereabouts, I saw an opportunity to exploit the situation.
I took and secretly left pictures of the stapler, bound and gagged, with the daily paper, otherwise known as "proof of life" photos, and in exchange for the safe return of said stapler, I asked for a specific number of paperclips and rubber bands to be released from captivity. The whole office eventually started talking about the incident (it "went viral" before the days of social media) and became a welcome disruption to the daily grind for a few weeks.
I am happy to say that the stapler was returned, and that no staplers were hurt during the course of this prank.
While "stapler-gate" was not the catalyst for turning the drab office into a creative powerhouse, I was happy to see the environment turn a little more playful after. It was an early lesson in how important it is for offices and teams to relax and take a break once in awhile, not only for the sanity of the team but also for the organization.
It taught me how playfulness can encourage happy and more productive employees.
So does every office need a prankster or a playful vision set at the top? Not exactly. All business leaders need to do to adopt a more playful office atmosphere and drive happiness, productivity and creativity is flexibility. Here are a few easy tips you can start today.
1. Change your default from "no" to "tell me more."
Passing immediate judgment on ideas is a great way to shut down another's creativity and enthusiasm. In fact, great ideas are often derived from irrelevant, unrealistic and even really bad ideas.
Instead of immediately saying "no" to an idea, allow the conversation to continue. Even if you think it is an idea that has no merit, pursue with a line inquiries like, "Tell me more" or "How did you come up with that?" There is rationale behind every idea, good and bad, so the goal should be simply to seek the right iteration.
2. Reward fun and failure.
Fear of failure is a huge obstacle for many people, which is why we often default to conservative and low-risk activities. In order to encourage employees to take risks and be playful, you need to encourage them to fail. This includes policies that support curiosity and "rule breaking." When employees understand that they can question the status quo and take chances, they are more likely to engage, have fun, and generate new and meaningful ideas.
With that said, you do need processes in place that support and vet new ideas, so that truly risky ideas do not end up sinking the business. Adopting a "fail fast" system can aid in quickly vetting the best (and worst) ideas.
3. Take people out of their comfort zone.
There is plenty of evidence that supports the idea that people learn and respond better when taken out of their natural comfort zone. If you want your team to develop new and meaningful ideas, they are more likely to do it when they are out of their element.
To create these environments, put your teams and team members in situations that are new and different or introduce unfamiliar stimulus. Require shy individuals to speak or give presentations on a topic of their choice. Ask individuals to debate topics not related to work, and ask them to argue a side they disagree with. Move your meetings to new locations from time to time, or have them on the floor. Regardless of your method, when you take people out of their comfort zone, they will be more likely to engage in playfulness, which can and will encourage new ideas.
Whether it is kidnapping office equipment or putting it in Jello, finding clever ways to introduce new employees, or paying homage to a dead cockroach, allowing and encouraging your team to relax, have fun and be playful can reap benefits for everyone. Try it sometime.
What do you think? How do you encourage a playful work environment with your teams?