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Thursday, 09 May 2013 16:15

Companies embrace workplace play

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Steve Groenink, managing director of Grand Rapids-based Lambert, Edwards & Associates Inc., said the corporate communications and investor relations firm wanted to include playful elements such as a basketball hoop and Scrabble board when it moved into its new offices in Grand Rapids. Steve Groenink, managing director of Grand Rapids-based Lambert, Edwards & Associates Inc., said the corporate communications and investor relations firm wanted to include playful elements such as a basketball hoop and Scrabble board when it moved into its new offices in Grand Rapids. PHOTO: JOE BOOMGAARD

Stuffy is out, fun is in.

That general trend in office culture has been taking shape for a couple of decades, but it’s becoming more pronounced as companies struggle to attract young creative talent and inspire their workforce.

The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, in collaboration with Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, held a symposium in early March on the topic of play in the workplace. The event included playful activities for businesspeople like improv comedy and songs and dances.

“People think (play) is just for kids, but it’s important for everyone,” said Adrienne Brown, the museum’s public relations and events manager. “We wanted to get it out there that adults need to play also.”

It’s a philosophy more local companies are embracing.

For example, when Grand Rapids-based corporate communications and investor relations firm Lambert, Edwards & Associates moved into new offices in both Grand Rapids and Detroit, it started with a “clean slate” to foster an atmosphere of creativity, said Steve Groenink, managing director at the firm.

“Our office space was really built from the ground floor up so we could be creative, (so) we could think outside of the box,” Groenink said. “We moved our office from a traditional, high-rise office space to one that we were really able to develop on our own.”

Now settled in its current location at 47 Commerce SW in the trendy part of downtown Grand Rapids’ Heartside District, the LE&A office is a custom-built, single-story, double storefront location. Groenink said LE&A has a similar setup at its offices in downtown Detroit.

While the firm’s offices do not necessarily have the communal work areas that are commonplace in many creative work environments — they still have a number of cubicles and closed-off offices — it has made considerable effort to provide workers with flexibility and opportunities for fun.

An indoor basketball hoop, a giant scrabble board and a wellness program that includes rooftop zumba are among the available amenities at the firm’s offices.

“The Scrabble board is probably the most intentional non-traditional (amenity) that we have,” Groenink said. “Lots of what we do here at the company is cause and effect. The Scrabble board is very intentional because of the work we do. We tell stories, we work with words. Day in and day out, that is what many of our professionals do.”

Groenink said the inclusion of the basketball hoop stems from co-founder Jeff Lambert’s love of the sport. He said it’s not uncommon for a quick basketball game to break out a few times per day.

“Businesses are doing so much more with fewer resources that you really don’t have (opportunities for breaks), but you still sometimes just need to step away from what you’re working on,” Groenink said.

The graphic design industry has also embraced the philosophy of “play in the workplace.” Grand Rapids’ Visualhero Design employs a flexible, laid-back environment for its workers — or “heroes,” as senior visual designer Kevin White referred to them.

“We offer an open, collaborative work environment to complement both work and personal life needs. By design, this allows flexibility in work location and atmosphere,” White said. “One day, a hero or heroes may work in the office and the next (they’re) on-site to accommodate various project or client needs. However, there are other days when individual team members work from home and purely concentrate on key deliverables or tasks.”

To alert co-workers, White said a designer simply texts “WFH” on those days to signify he or she will be working from home.

White is largely dismissive of the notion that productivity could be reduced in an environment in which coming into the office is not always required.

“The freedom to take momentary breaks is what allows the creative mind to grow and even stumble upon a solution,” White said. “Liberty to have fun or baste in a laid-back environment has never compromised goals. Instead, it’s made goals both attainable and maybe easier to reach.”

Since moving from the former high-rise office to its current space, LE&A’s Groenink said he has noticed many positive changes in how associates work.

“Competition in our company, we like to think, is healthy. We are always challenging people to be better,” Groenink said. “(There) are lots of different choices that clients could make in who they choose to be their partner, so we want people to challenge themselves to be better at what we do in servicing our clients. Sometimes, internally that means (when) someone comes up with a great idea, someone else wants to come up with a greater idea. And that’s a healthy thing as long as it’s done in a professional and collaborative way.”

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