It seems that Google is just as much synonymous with being a search engine and advertising juggernaut as it is with having slides in their offices. And while Google may have popularized the insertion of playground elements into office design, slides and ball pits are now seen as a superficial amenity to persuade employees to stay in the office for longer hours. However, if we take a step back, we can learn some lessons from playground design on how to make our workplaces more inspiring.
No, I’m not talking about the sterile, staid, and contained playgrounds resulting from years of litigation and an infatuation with safety (pictured on the left). I’m speaking of the stimulating, thrilling, and inspiring playgrounds that resemble a fantastical landscape (pictured on the right) rather than a cage with a slide.
The best playgrounds allow kids to explore, get lost, take risks, and sometimes fall. It’s through this exploration, autonomy, and occasional failure, that kids learn to be creative and resilient beings. They learn to make new and unexpected connections. They overcome obstacles and build unexpected worlds with their own rules. Those rigid, excessively safe playgrounds, on the other hand, push kids into overly prescribed activities devoid of creative thought or risk. They take the joy out of play.
The workplace equivalent of these sterilized playscapes is the cubicle. Yes, we all know cubes suck the joy and inspiration out of any workplace. They provide zero choice, they minimize collaborative opportunities, and they take autonomy away from people. Work today is not linear or homogenous and the spaces we work in shouldn’t be either. So, what if we took our cues from the adventurous, exciting, and organic playgrounds that inspire such joy and exploration in kids? Would these spaces bring that same joy and exploration into our work? Would they foster the same resilience and creativity? I’m not advocating for tree houses, sand boxes, and rope swings in offices, but for the feelings that these spaces evoke, the freedoms they offer, and the actions they inspire. Office spaces should be heterogeneous landscapes that permit us, and maybe even nudge us, to explore without being prescriptive. They should offer us the freedom to use the space as we feel moved to and take ownership over the space. They should promote openness over containment, flexibility over rigidity, and exploration over passivity. Our office spaces should be environments full of choice, that inspire decision-making, and support resourcefulness. Office spaces should allow employees to take ownership over the space.
This is no easy task in a professional environment where employees may be wearing suits and there are clients to impress. What is the professional equivalent of a sandbox or a warren of logs and boulders? The answer will differ across industries and office cultures, but office spaces should give working adults the same advantages as great playscapes give to children; to experiment without boundaries, to build trust and relationships, to fill us with energy, to break down judgment, to silence our inner critic, and to trigger creative thought.
Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi came up with the concept of the flow state, which is an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. This mental state of flow involves being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one... Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” That sounds a lot like a child involved in play to me. For workers in the information economy and for those who do creative work, this flow state is a much sought-after state that is increasingly difficult to achieve in our distraction-rich environment. An important component of this flow state, and something that adults struggle with more than children, is the dissolution of ego. Successful playgrounds allow kids to lose themselves and become other people in other worlds. This facilitates discoveries otherwise not accessible. The challenge for our workplaces is to give us permission to let our guard down and explore the unknown.
There is no getting over that work, for most of us, is a necessary and daily activity with sometimes repetitive tasks. But this is no excuse for bleeding the life out of our spaces. In fact, this is the reason we should be adding life back in. As George Bernard Shaw said, “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.”
Slides and ball pits may have been effective distractions for overworked tech employees in Google’s early days, but that’s just what they are, distractions. For truly meaningful and stimulating spaces that support us in doing our best work, we should be taking our cues from the spaces that inspire our kids, for we could all use a little more inspiration, play, and joy in our lives.