All Work and Some Play

Why goofing off can be good for you—and for business

Anyone who’s ever snuck off to the movies at 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, scuffed up the office walls playing hockey or blown away a co-worker in a game of Doom will appreciate the efforts of Kevin Proudfoot.

In terms of justifiable goofing off at work, few can touch the associate creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in New York. Last year he turned Shelfball, a silly office game, into a successful ESPN ad campaign. He won a gold Lion at Cannes for the work. And he also lent some credence to a notion popular among creatives and pop psychologists (though perhaps not among most clients) that people just might do some of their best work when they’re not actually working.

“It can be a stressful industry,” says Proudfoot, “but at the same time, we’re not saving lives. It’s nice to have the kind of environment where you can goof off a little.”

It was during the dot-com era, when everything was a bit upside-down, that the idea of work as play truly came into its own—and defined many office cultures. Things have calmed down since then. But as companies run leaner, the theory persists that workers can be more inspired and creative if they are allowed to turn their attention, even briefly, to something frivolous. Fun breeds happiness, the thinking goes, and happiness breeds productivity.

It’s not something creatives need to be told. “We used to have scooter races—laps around the creative department,” says Jason Elm, senior copywriter at Deutsch/LA in Marina del Rey, Calif. “We had a stopwatch, a dry-erase board, an Evel Knievel helmet. I think the record was 25.3 seconds.” But then someone took a “pretty heinous spill,” which put a damper on things, Elm says. “You know, our parents were right. It is always fun until someone gets hurt.”

At another shop, Elm and a few buddies worked to create a paper airplane that could fly from their balcony into a parking garage across the street. “We tried aerodynamic wings, different types of paper,” he says. “We found a big shipping tube, which we used as a fuselage. We added foamcore wings. It was about six feet across.” That model drifted sadly down to the street, but one day the group did get a plane across. “That killed it for all of us,” Elm says.

Austin Howe, cd at Four Stories in Portland, Ore., has found funkier diversions than the usual basketball, pool and darts. “A great one is using the intercom to act out scenes from movies,” he says, before giving a decent impression of Lumbergh from Office Space. Howe also knocked out a co-worker’s front teeth once during a game of hall hockey. “I thought, ‘Oh no! Mischief has turned to murder!’ ” he says. (The victim and the friendship survived.)

Some experts say playing at work (when not painful) can be remarkably beneficial. “If you think you have to work all 60 minutes an hour for all eight hours a day, you burn out,” says Matt Weinstein, president of the consultancy Playfair and author of Managing to Have Fun. “Fun has come into the marketplace as an intentional management strategy. In tough times, companies can’t always throw money at you, but they can throw some joy at you.”

The game of choice for Joe Shands, cd at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., is good old-fashioned football—played on Main Street, the common area that runs through the office. “The worst thing you can do [if you’re blocked] is sit and stare at each other or at a blinking cursor,” he says. “When you do something else, your brain starts kicking in.”

Still, Howe suspects the golden age of horseplay at ad agencies is over. “Nobody screws around as much as they used to,” he says. “It’s endemic of where the industry is. You don’t have the entrepreneurs running the agencies—I can’t see Martin Sorrell playing hall hockey. If you feel you’re accountable for every billable hour, do you really want to be screwing around?”

Or maybe, in a more sober industry, the real fun is in being ever more creative with one’s diversions. Proudfoot, for one, seems none too pleased that a Ping-Pong table just arrived at Wieden. “To me, that’s kind of sad,” he says. “It’s more formal. With something like Shelfball, all you need is a ball, and it just happens.”

But even Shelfball, it turns out, is stale. Says Proudfoot: “We’ve moved on to the throwing-the-ball-over-the-sprinkler-pipe game.”