The Tangent Labs team have made a habit of taking a couple of frisbees to the park at lunch time. Alex ruminates on the reasons why.
London has resumed operation as an overcast and bitterly cold place to be, and as such we at Tangent Labs have ceased our daily lunch Frisbee. Subsequently, all our suspicions have been confirmed concerning the reasons why we do this in the first place. It wasn't organised or ordained from on high, despite our shiny white frisbees with the Labs logo printed on them. Lunch Frisbee wasn't really planned or premeditated, but, nonetheless, if the sun's out around one o'clock Regent's Park is where you'll find us. Why? Because necessity is the mother of all invention.
Google, which, as many would agree (with qualifications), is now the model for us all, informs us that it provides many things for its staff which might otherwise be tricky to fit into a day's work, concerning which Eric Schmidt has this much to say:
Let's face it: programmers want to program, they don't want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.
Among these, it is widely documented common knowledge that Google encourages physical activity. The Googleplex is decked out with gyms with free personal training sessions, and volleyball courts, and holds roller hockey matches twice a week. Commentators may have wondered at this approach to business, which runs rather counter to the infamous early 60s mindset that, according to mythology, is supposed to have produced the World Trade Center's narrow vertical windows, which would not distract workers with a view — much less that Bonfire of the Vanities-esque idea of putting workers under an "eight-foot ceiling bearing down on your head, an oppressive space with a ferocious glare," up "sixty stories from out of the gloomy groin of Wall Street," where they can't get out into a park.
You trundle along the wind-bitten street, spits of rain and shadow at the edges, to the nearest sandwich shop, and you bring something back to the office, and you feel — well, sludgy, there's no other word for it, anyone ever sat at a desk more than four hours knows the feeling. Your whole body is slow, you swim in a pervading stagnation, and all you can do is reach for your toes and look into the distance. Primary school kids get a lunch break, and they run around and throw things at each other, and no amount of coffee and cigarettes has the same effect. Stimulating a sludgy brain 'til it's firing sparks across the whole surface of the landscape doesn't make it any less sludgy. Any number of suggestions that exercise improves cognition, focus, planning and co-ordination - but we don't really need documents to tell us what we need only confirm: that we feel more engaged and more inspired after getting that nervous energy out, when the blood and the lymph and the breath flow.
Steve Keil and Stuart Brown have both argued, at TED, for the importance of play. After a couple of hours wired in it's easy to lapse into seeing your fellow employees in terms of the e-mails you send them and the notes they leave on your tickets, and were we machines this might suffice. However, once the various styles and unexpected moves come out in a game of Frisbee, and all the awkward happenstance plays out in more or less comfort, you remember your fellow office-dwellers are human beings full of life and idiosyncrasy; and the fact of the matter is that your clients and your customers are cut from the same cloth, a cloth which dances in the wind and glows in the sunlight.
It's important to understand that the goals you take seriously as a professional arise from the same hollow as your weirdnesses and your fighting spirit; and it is always surprising, those first few minutes when you get back from running around in the park, how things suddenly make more sense, how ideas and motivations present themselves, how problems that might have seemed intractable are suddenly solved. So, may the sun shine on your developers! This might just be the reason why, between Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, UCLA, the headquarters of Google and Facebook, that whole concept of "Silicon Valley," sunny California is, of all places, still the hub, the centre of innovation in Information Technology as we know it today.