Nobody works a complete day—we can’t. We like doing our work, but we all need to stop periodically to refresh ourselves, by doing something other than work. We are by no means slacking off when we get up and go down the hall for coffee—like a boxer between rounds, we need to take a break.
But there is another kind of break we need that is not to do with tiredness or refreshment. It is the relief we need from the pressure of our work. Most people engaged in projects work hard, and sometimes long, and often under the pressure of a tight deadline. This is normal; we would not want it any other way. However, from time to time, teams need a release from some of that pressure.
The mechanical safety valve pictured at the start of this piece releases steam when the pressure in a boiler climbs too high. Many project teams create their own safety valve, usually an idiosyncratic activity that becomes their special way of letting off steam.
Safety valves take many forms. Some are simple: For example, one team we know engages in spontaneous Silly String battles. Another team organizes races among the office cubicles, on miniature tricycles.
Other valves are more elaborate. One large team regularly plays a game called “Secret Assassin.” Each team member is assigned a target and simultaneously becomes another member’s target. Once these secret assignments have been made, team members stalk their target with a Nerf gun. They go about their work as they normally would, while hoping to catch their target before getting Nerfed by their own secret assassin.
Rather than take people away from their work, the game seems to do the opposite. One director of this company finds that productivity rises when a game of Secret Assassin is being played. The rules of the game may support this effect; for example, employees may not be assassinated at their desks.
At another company, on the first Friday of each month, the whole software development team heads off to a newly opened movie chosen by an e-mail poll. The surprising thing is not that people go to the movies, but that everybody on the team attends, regardless of the film being shown, and (almost) regardless of the project’s demands.
Betting pools also serve as safety valves. One team conducts a sweepstakes on the daily pickup time of the UPS van, to the nearest minute. The typical kitty is barely enough to buy lunch, but the suspense always succeeds in breaking the tension of the team’s work.
Safety valves like these are born within the team. Someone starts the activity, and it catches on with the rest of the team members. This kind of activity cannot be mandated or even suggested by someone outside the team. We have observed notable failures when management attempts to manufacture a safety valve for a team.
At one company, the HR department built a recreation area for developers—but nobody used it. An insurance company set aside a room, furnished it with couches and cushions, and posted a sign urging employees to use the room when they needed to relax. Again, nobody used it, preferring instead to stop by the large fish tank and watch the carp for a few minutes.
This is not to say that management or HR is incapable of facilitating a team’s chosen release activity. Pool tables, ping-pong tables, dartboards, and similar diversions have all proved popular at various installations. However, the most effective and popular safety valves originate inside the team.
If you are a manager and see a team spending a little time on a safety-valve activity, please don’t discourage it. And don’t encourage it, either, for that is the team’s playtime, and they know best how to use it.
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