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CREATIVITY All play is work at some places



Published: Mon, February 25, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Some businesses consider goofing off on company time a good thing.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

The folks at the D'Arcy Masius Benton & amp; Bowles advertising agency in St. Louis like to rock climb, visit art museums and even go to the movies -- all on company time.

At Habanero Computing Solutions Inc., a St. Louis-area computer consulting firm, employees play video games and go bowling.

Executives at Aurora Foods, a manufacturer in St. Louis, encourage employees to write on the walls with markers, experiment with Play-Doh and play with Slinkies.

Doesn't anyone around here work anymore?

It's work: Actually, what they do is considered work. Sure, it beats stapling papers in a drab cubicle, but it's not all fun and games. These companies and many more across the country seek to find the next best product or idea that ultimately will give them an edge over the competition. And if that takes a little Play-Doh and quality arcade time, so be it.

"It's about play," said Shelley Berc, a director and co-founder of the Creativity Workshop, a New York consulting firm. "But it's creative play."

One could argue that the best types of creativity and innovation are inherently spontaneous and individualistic. For many executives, those corporate retreats and team-building exercises always had dubious value. Some can even be downright dangerous.

Take a Burger King retreat last year, for instance, when several marketing employees burned their feet after walking across a bed of hot coals during a motivational exercise.

Lifeblood of operations: Why do companies even need creativity tools or programs? For one thing, creativity is the lifeblood of certain company operations, such as marketing, sales, and research and development, experts say. Markets such as the food and beverage industry are so saturated that companies struggle to distinguish their products from competitors, said Dave Owens, Aurora's vice president of product development.

So it's imperative for companies that depend heavily on creativity to make sure their employees stay fresh and nimble, said Ron Crooks, D'Arcy's managing director and chief creative officer in St. Louis.

"Creativity is a commodity," he said. "It can get diminished. You have to replenish it."

Some of the biggest obstacles to creativity can be the company itself, experts say.

Businesses often fail to marry the goals of the company to the personal goals of an employee, said Kathy Cramer, a psychologist and founder of the Cramer Institute, a consulting firm.

But employees will have more of an incentive to be creative if they are invested in the company, Kramer said. "Then everything you do brings a benefit to you and the company."

Different ways: Companies use different methods to promote creativity. Some, including Aurora Foods and Millennium Communications Inc., a St. Louis public relations firm, have constructed "innovation rooms" for employees to stretch their creative muscles.

Aurora's room, located in the same building that houses a new pilot manufacturing plant and product development offices, contains a high ceiling to symbolize a "sky's the limit" mentality and acoustics where "ideas bounce around," said Owens.

Like Aurora, Millennium Communications also has Slinkies, write-on walls and funky furniture.

Some companies prefer that their employees get out of the office. Employees at Habanero Computing Solutions frequent Dave & amp; Busters, a video arcade for adults, where they compete against each other in teams, an activity meant to promote team-building skills, said Charisa Matheson, director of human resources.

D'Arcy often holds "kidnappings" in which employees suddenly are whisked away on field trips to places like the St. Louis Art Museum and asked to think about a certain artist or exhibit.

Can this stuff really work? Can companies create a more creative work force?

Do it right: Experts say yes -- but only if done properly. Too often, these activities are not well designed or executed, and many companies fail to follow up on their employees' progress or lack of growth, said Mike Lockwood, senior product manager at Maritz Inc., a St. Louis-based consulting firm.

While Maritz specializes in designing financial incentive programs to reward employee performance, Lockwood believes creativity programs are useful under certain conditions.

"It has to be continuously done," he said. "It can't be a one-time event."




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