Ed, one of our senior engineers, stared at his screen. I don’t know what his brain was thinking exactly at that moment, but I imagine it wasn’t something like, “the differential equation that I need in order to show that the fixed value of the viscosity of the liquid at 10 horse power has got to be less than the tangental value of the sine wave.” It was probably something like “How…what…I don’t…ARGGH!”
He had been working on programming our new software that can create custom tanks in just the few clicks of a button. Essentially he had been uploading his brain to the program since 4 AM without a break, and he’d hit a wall.
He came out of his office and stared at the wall directly across from him. “Danny!” he yelled. Without saying a word a set of keys flew over a cubicle wall and floated down into Ed’s hands.
It was time to ride.
Arguments Against Riding
The understood rule was that when Ed needed to clear his brain, he could go for a ride on Danny’s motorcycle. Danny, our marketing director, has a 2002 Honda Shadow ACE that is available to those whose brains need a breath of fresh air at 60 miles per hour.
Now, some of you might be thinking “Motorcycles are dangerous!” They are. But so are Big Macs, sun burns, and toasters. However, if you act carefully around all those things, they can be used in very beneficial ways.
Others might be thinking, “It is a waste of company time to allow employees to ride motorcycles during working hours.” Now we are getting somewhere that is a bit touchy.
The idea of doing something not directly related to your job at some companies is considered at best a break and at worst “time theft.” Other companies showcase their crazy work stations or their cool cafeterias. I am not saying that Mixer Direct has found the perfect balance between these two ideas, but I am saying we have discovered there is balance.
The Importance of Play at Work
We all know “All work and no play makes Jack a dull bunny.” Most of us think that has more to do with living a full life rather than being a good employee. But what if I told you that play makes for a good employee? What if I told you the best employees are those with the work ethic of a Puritan and the creative mind of a Renaissance man? What if I told you that a mind freed to be creative makes for an innovative, engaged employee?
Now you might be thinking, “Sure. That’s all fine and well for those Google and Pixar weirdos, but that pop-psychology garbage isn’t for our company.” Well, it’s actually not pop psychology.
The Neuroscience of Play
Dr. Stuart Brown, the president of the National Institute of Play, has presented research that shows that play actually lights up the cerebellum increasing motor control and cognitive functions. It also puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe which stimulates the part of the brain responsible for reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. It also helps develop contextual memory. Bottom line - employees that have the freedom to “play” at work think more clearly and sharply.
This not only helps people whose job it is to be creative, but it also helps accountants, welders, and shipping techs. Employees who have the freedom to be innovative and creative in their work find solutions to long-standing problems. They have cultivated a creative brain that is trained to look at old problems with new eyes. When using these creative eyes, accountants can see how the puzzle pieces of their reconciliation fits together. Welders figure out ways to put a seem down with greater ease. Shipping techs figure out ways to build crates more efficiently.
Can this “perk of play” be abused? Sure. People are selfish and will abuse privileges. It’s part of our sinful nature. But that’s why we have accountability with our managers and foremen. There is a job at hand that is to be performed. And let’s be honest: you can have satisfied, energetic employees thinking of super creative solutions to problems all day long, but unless those solutions are put to good use, it does the company no good.
How It Works Out
At Mixer Direct, we don’t always take a motorcycle out every time we hit the wall. Sometimes we just grab a cup of coffee, do a couple of jumping jacks, and get back to it. Other times we shoot Nerf darts at each other with our web camera controlled guns. Or maybe we just get together for a big lunch, eat some great fajitas, and tell funny stories. We don’t have a set way to play. If we did, that’d just be more work.
When Ed came back from his ride, he was almost power-walking back to his desk like he was running downstairs for Christmas.
“I figured it out!”
Somewhere while he was out, connected to the road by a 600 pound machine, the roadblock in his mind cleared out. Sometime during his “play time” his brain cleared out and the solution came leaping into his mind. He could have sat and stared at his computer for the next two hours, but instead he went for a refreshing five minute ride. Motorcycles might not be for everybody, but play certainly is.