Friday, September 21, 2012

Ping Pong Tables and Leather Couches

Having been in what is considered one of the creative professions for quite a while now, the idea of having a large ping pong or billiards table in the workplace is not really new to me.  Long before “business casual” and “summer hours,” design firms, commercial printers, audio visual-production houses, and some ad agencies had decided to introduce game room-style creature comforts to their offices. 

The early rationale was that given the long hours typically put in at such places, they wanted to make it as comfortable and relaxed as possible.  Tied to this, the nature of the work done in these businesses often required long waits.  If a client like me was on site to do a press check, for instance, we learned to expect full jars of M&Ms, protein bars and caffeine in just about any form it comes.  We also knew we would wait in between quality checks of print runs on comfortable leather furniture, and perhaps, take part in a game of eight-ball.

Taking a break from the office grind for long days off site at creative shops is always a nice diversion, but not one that I’d want every day. The truth is, I really haven’t seen those ping pong tables get used that much.  If given a choice, most people would rather get the job done and get out of there, I believe. 

Over the past 15 years or so, however, the emergence of the tech sector and its iconoclastic challenge to the traditional corporate culture brought with it an almost uniform informality.  Jeans and hoodies, ala Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Loft-style, open offices with collaborators toting their laptops and iPads from workstation to workstation.  And the ever-present ping pong tables and leather couches.

In the years I’ve visited firms with such amenities, I have noticed that managers love to give visitors a tour of the offices and brag about the loose and relaxed atmosphere, then point to a dart board or Nerf basketball hoop.

But as you would expect during these tours, most people were working and not playing.  I’ve made it a habit to ask people in these kinds of workplaces if they ever used the recreational items.  Almost always, the response is something akin to, “Yeah, if I’m working late, or if I’m waiting for a coworker or a ride.”

But usually when I asked the bosses the same question, the response was most often that they would prefer to see their people working rather than “goofing off.”  The unsaid rule seems to have been that these things are more for after-hours than the regular work day.

So why work in an office around such procrastination temptations?  I don’t know.  Maybe it helps in the hiring process.  Maybe it’s a corporate culture message the firm wants to send to visitors.  Maybe at the time the items were purchased, it was just wishful thinking, best of intentions, centered on morale-building. 

What I do know is that at some point, lots of people will get a great deal on a “hardly used, like new” ping pong table on eBay.

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