How culture-boosting activities supercharge employees

April 27, 20165 Minute Read

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Foosball tables, vintage arcade games, and dedicated Nintendo zones may seem more like a man cave than a workplace, but they’ve become the norm in the tech industry. In fact, if you don’t have any of these in your office, your stack of resumes from top IT talent is probably pretty thin.

Tech talent is in high demand these days, and recruiting for IT jobs is competitive. In an effort to attract and retain the best and brightest, many employers have followed Google’s example, investing in creating workplaces packed with perks, games, and culture-boosting activities. The goal isn’t to keep employees happy so they’ll continue to show up, put their heads down, and do their jobs—it’s to increase their creativity, productivity, and engagement—and the fact is that happy employees perform better and deliver more bang for their buck.

Happiness pays off—literally

There are countless studies showing the correlation between happiness and productivity. The University of Warwick found that happiness leads to a 12 percent spike in productivity (unhappy workers were 10 percent less productive), and a Harvard psychology researcher found that the brain actually works better when we’re feeling positive, making us more creative, better at problem-solving, and more effective collaborators. Gallup estimates that less than one-third of US workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014, costing employers up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

These numbers tell us that there’s a lot riding on an organization’s commitment and ability to cultivate a positive workplace. It’s not enough to throw snacks, a Jenga set, and some colorful chairs in an open room and call it a day (it couldn’t hurt), but there are certain types of culture-boosting activities that are effective at driving employee satisfaction and performance.

Low-impact sports get the blood flowing

Let’s start by looking at the biggest startup cliché in the industry—the ping-pong table. According to Dr. Daniel Amen of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, ping-pong can increase employee productivity because it provides social and recreational interaction, increases concentration and alertness, helps develop tactical thinking skills and hand-eye coordination, stimulates brain function, and provides aerobic exercise. Ping-pong encourages employees to get up and move around, interact with each other, and give their brain a break, which also gives it a big boost. They go back to their desks energized and ready to tackle whatever task is next.

Yoga creates a chill zone

A Global Benefits Attitudes survey from Towers Watson revealed that employees suffering from high stress levels have lower engagement, are less productive, and have higher absenteeism levels. Fortune 100 companies including Apple, Fannie Mae, and Hewlett-Packard have caught on and now offer yoga to help employees relax, slow down, and de-stress. Yoga has been scientifically shown to reduce stress and anxiety; it also improves concentration and decision-making skills, boosts alertness, reduces fatigue, and helps employees engage in smarter, calmer decision-making and problem solving. If yoga isn’t your thing, rock climbing walls can deliver similar effects.

Bonding boosts culture

Other culture-boosting activities focus on strengthening the bonds between employees. Rope courses and improv sessions have long been dreaded staples of office retreats, but there are other, less awkward ways to go about it that don’t end in horror. The key is to create shared moments and opportunities for employees to interact with each other in new ways, such as sharing each other’s interests or learning new skills. Consider organizing bowling trips, book clubs, and fitness groups, or offer extracurricular classes at the office on Tuesday evenings. Maybe you have an office potluck instead of a catered meal, or a themed happy hour that encourages employees to dress up. The key is to select activities that enable social connections. Don’t forget that every “win,” such as hitting a company milestone, is an opportunity to fuel camaraderie, satisfaction, and loyalty with a celebration.

Gaming is the new participation trophy

In the past, employees, a lot like kids, got to enjoy an activity at work when they achieved a goal, like completed a project on time. Today, they get to do it just for showing up. Long considered a time waster of teenagers and the perpetually single, video games are finally earning some respect. Gaming, says game designer and author Jane McGonigal, is the neurological opposite of depression. They bring disparate people together and give them the opportunity to go through highs and lows together, whether through teamwork, friendly competition, or both. Brain scans have shown that the most active part of the brain while gaming is the reward center and the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. Employees practice problem-solving, resource allocation, and critical thinking within the world of the game, and they bring that strategic mindset back to their work.

Purpose drives performance

A sense of purpose and potential at work is a key motivator for tech talent. Sponsoring talks and seminars emphasizes to employees that their work matters and that the company is invested in them—it also supports both professional and personal growth. For example, you could hold regular lectures by experts in your industry, or you could cultivate purpose through community service. A data analytics startup could help local school district analyze its yearly performance and find new ways to increase high-school graduation rates, for example.

Think outside the box

There’s no limit to the things you could do to boost culture in the workplace. Something as simple as a ping-pong table, a yoga mat, a Nintendo console, and a couch can have a dramatic impact on your company’s performance. But the companies with the strongest work cultures didn’t imitate others when building those cultures—they let their vision and values lead the design.

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