Companies believe having fun at work is serious business

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Hunt Hodgkins (left) talks with Ron Stauffer and Julie Duffens about an upcoming project at CodeBaby’s laid-back offices.

X marks the spot: Hunt Hodgkins (left) talks with Ron Stauffer and Julie Duffens about an upcoming project at CodeBaby’s laid-back offices.

When Hunt Hodgkins needs inspiration while designing digital characters, he rides a scooter around the office to visit his colleagues or joins them for Nerf dart-gun battles.

“The atmosphere here is so open, and everyone’s available for communication between teams. It allows us to work together and be more creative,” he said.

Since 2009, Hodgkins has been an animation artist at CodeBaby, a company with offices in Colorado Springs, where there are 28 employees, and in Alberta, Canada, where there are seven. The company creates and designs digital characters for business websites.

“Taking a break to create energy is not frowned upon here,” Hodgkins said. “It’s encouraged.”

Human-resource experts say this kind of creativity and humor in the work place is conducive to productivity and retaining employees.

David Abramis, a professor in the department of human resource management at California State University at Long Beach, says humor is one of the characteristics that defines people as human.

An organization that lacks humor? It’s “inhuman” and it’s squelching a core trait of its employees, he says.

Walks in the woods

Carol and Eddie Sturman, co-owners of Woodland Park-based Sturman Industries, an engineering company, have long been aware of the dynamic of humor and freedom within the work place.

They designed their high-tech mountain lodge with open spaces to foster innovation and creativity. Not only that, the building sits in a natural setting, so employees can bike and hike during breaks or walk into the woods to meet with clients.

“We wanted an environment to inspire people,” Carol said, which means there are few closed spaces or offices in their building. There are, however, plenty of informal meeting areas, couches, fireplaces and patios.

“They can turn around and get together in a few seconds,” she said. “The more you have people together, the more they feel like one team,” Carol said. “The physical separation makes it harder on the communication.”

‘Spark of creativity’

Executives who foster such physically and psychologically open environments are quick to point out, however, that there is structure — not necessarily during goof-off time — but in the creative process as employees work and think.

“Philosophically, our product is a currency of ideas,” said Meredith Vaughan, CEO of Vladimir Jones, a Colorado Springs-based public relations and marketing firm with 60 employees in the city and 15 at its Denver office.

“Fundamental to creativity is that it’s OK for there to be failure — otherwise, people won’t take risks. They have to feel comfortable enough to push boundaries,” she said.

To ensure that the company doesn’t overlook great ideas, even those that aren’t yet being executed properly, they have formalized a review process to evaluate creative concepts.

“We don’t want to kill that spark of creativity,” she said.

In the process of fostering ideas, colleagues have heated discussions, she said.

“Probably someone from a more traditional environment wouldn’t be comfortable with that,” she added. “But we like diversity, enthusiasm and innovation. We would never in a million years do anything to quash that — we need it.”

With that attitude, nothing surprises her — except perhaps the day she walked back to her office after a meeting and found two miniature horses grazing contentedly on hay beneath a handwritten sign: “There’s nothing wrong with a little horsing around.”

The environment at the agency, however, does surprise people when they come to visit. Although many people embrace it, some can’t handle it. “I think we frighten some people,” she said.

Vaughan challenges the typical corporate mindset.

“Why does work have to be all work, and fun have to be all fun? There has to be a sense of relief from work,” she said.

Sometimes, she said, employees and executives work 15 hours a day, “so if work doesn’t have a sense of joy — good grief!”

At Vladimir, “internal creative endeavors” are a line item in the annual operating budget, equal to 1 percent of the company’s income, Vaughan said. She has increased that amount substantially over the last 10 years because the value of employee fun and creativity has become more and more evident to her, she said.

For instance, Vladimir now receives as many as 100 applications for a job position, she said, and the wider talent pool benefits both the firm and its clients in the long run.

Vaughan’s company doesn’t merely give lip service to its philosophy. The agency wrote, “The TAO of Vladimir Jones,” a 70-page hardcover booklet filled with sayings that define the company’s guiding principles. Some examples: “Until you make somebody care, you’re talking to yourself.” “Fear is a bad reason to do anything that doesn’t involve bears.” “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”

Not surprisingly, employees have gone so far as to produce a video for fun, titled “A Midsummer Day’s Puck-off,” which includes screen shots of employees playing foosball, riding skateboards (every office seems to have one or two) or hanging out in the lounge while quoting lines from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The video inspired employees to create the interactive “Puck Wall” for one of Vladimir’s clients, the Excel Energy Center, a multipurpose entertainment and sports stadium in Minneapolis. The Puck Wall has large video screens; when children or adults stand in front of them, their image is projected onto the screen with hockey helmets on their heads.

The company holds itself to breaking the corporate mold in its executive and employee interactions. For instance, employees’ quarterly evaluations are self-evaluations, with the statement: “Please share examples of occasions when you exemplified one or more of these core values: fearless, soulful, smart, focused, eclectic and curious.”

In between breaks, of course, employees work hard. But when they need fresh ideas or mental energy, they jump on skateboards or compete in the lounge to be mayor of the four-square. If it’s late on a Friday afternoon, they help themselves to beer from the keg.

Once a year, the agency shuts down for a day and has a big party, hosting its “Annual Halloween Overreaction.” Clients come to evaluate as employees dress up and perform in competition.

Back at CodeBaby, the company underwent a rebirth when it moved its sales, marketing and graphic-design offices to Colorado Springs in 2008 (the engineering department stayed in Edmonton).

CEO Patrick Bultema joined the company, and business strategy shifted from designing digital characters primarily for in-house e-Learning to Internet and company websites.

These days, employees create characters for clients that help them achieve specific objectives, such as getting people to sign up for a trial period of service or filing incident reports online, said Tony DeLollis, CodeBaby’s chief technology officer.

People can make intense emotional connections with digital characters, as video gamers know. This connection works in the business world too, but it requires creativity in designing characters whom people trust enough to do business with.

During beta-testing, for example, CodeBaby discovered that the British-nanny character it designed for client Net Nanny, an Internet content-blocking software for parents, appeared “condescending and pompous,” DeLollis said.

The CodeBaby team went back to the digital drawing board and created “Molly,” a thirtysomething soccer mom with a marketing degree.

“When we write the script for her, it has to fit her character,” he said. “So we find ourselves saying things like, ‘Molly would never say that.’”

All that scooter-riding and playing with robots paid off: Molly was a hit with the client’s customers. Molly has proven to be 2.5 times more likely to get people to sign up for trial service than efforts made without her help, DeLollis said.

Much of the brainstorming and collaboration that goes into creating these characters happens outside the office. Employees visit coffee shops, go for bicycle rides, or sit on the benches outside the Pioneers Museum.

“There are many walks around the block, here,” DeLollis said. “We don’t have a clock-puncher mentality.”

Employees work long hours, and many prefer to come to work midmorning and work later at night rather than beginning earlier in the day.

There’s even a Breakfast Club, which includes half a dozen employees who shop once a week and dine together in the office on things like Lucky Charms cereal.

DeLollis said that having a creative environment and giving employees the ability to write, think, brainstorm and work outside, and have fun, increases productivity by 20 percent.

The environment helps save time on deployment, reduces rework, quality checks are done earlier, and customer satisfaction is higher, he said.

Among the company’s artists, the open and creative environment has kept attrition at 0 percent, DeLollis said. And he estimates that CodeBaby employees work about 25 percent more hours than their counterparts in a typical “corporate” environment do.

No sense of humor?

Although a recent survey of 737 CEOs by Hodge-Cronin and Associates showed that 98 percent preferred job candidates with a sense of humor to those without, few companies or CEOs tolerate, much less encourage, a culture where creativity, humor and fun are mainstays.

“(Fostering) creativity is a big player in any workplace — it goes along with thinking outside the box,” said Julie Perkins, senior recruiter at the Colorado Springs office of Manpower Inc.

“It’s a matter in general of working with your employees needs and (figuring out) what makes them want to stay, and what makes them better, happier, more productive employees.”

Abramis, the Cal State Long beach professor, takes it a step further than that.

In an article for Human Resource Management, he wrote: “If humor is suppressed, other personal characteristics that are required to do business are also likely to be suppressed — in particular, mental health, job satisfaction and what is perhaps most important, creativity.”