Cool workplaces, hoodies and ice cream make good science

6 Jul 2011

Most people who don’t work in engineering or R&D roles or at places like Google or Facebook are aghast at the perks available to workers, from game days, hoodies and sushi to free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. According to an Irish PhD scientist based at Pfizer, there is a method to this madness.

For private-sector workers in most countries, austerity is a byword for reality and working life means cutbacks and you bring your own lunch. But in the technology industry, it seems right now to be a parallel universe where an Indian head massage at your desk, yoga Tuesdays, free food and other perks are par for the course.

In the US, The Wall Street Journal reported how the ‘perk bubble’ is growing and how graduates traditionally destined for Wall Street are changing direction and going to work at start-ups instead – swapping the suit for the hoodie apparently makes better sense.

Most of us would wryly assume the perks bubble is exploding because talented, skilled people can name their prices these days.

However, at last week’s IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium in Dublin, Dr Jay Chopra, an innovation fellow at Pfizer, explained why innovative companies are providing these perks – to ensure their workers’ minds are unencumbered, rational and open to creating innovative products and spotting good business opportunities.

“It’s not just for the fun of having a cool workplace and free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and lunch. There’s actually good science and good thought behind all this,” said Chopra.

Identify x insight x ideas x impact = innovation

Chopra completed a PhD in UCC and moved to New York City in January 2011 to take up the role of innovation fellow, working alongside the Pfizer Manufacturing Innovation Leader, to effect a viral behavioural culture change in the innovation space.

He pointed to Google’s business model that allows workers to spend 20pc of their time on their own projects and 10pc of their time on tasks unrelated to their roles.

In effect, it is a kind, mental exercise aimed at making sure people are in the correct state of mind – with the right level of freshness and clarity – to spot opportunities and make them happen.

“It’s down to this formula: identify x insight x ideas x impact = innovation.”

Chopra explained: “The first step we advocate is people identify their challenge or their problem. It could be a project they’re working on and why it is challenging. The next part is insight; insight is all around you, where do you look for fresh stimulus? Then there are ideas – it’s OK to have ideas but what about the impact of those ideas? You need to have ideas that have tangible business value.”

Chopra gave the example of researchers at Scholl, the company that makes insoles for footwear.

“The guys used to go out with girls who would like to go dancing and they noticed that when the girls were dancing they’d take off their shoes. They thought about it for awhile and this gave them the insight to go and create their highly successful Scholl Party Feet invisible gel cushions,” he said.

So there you have it, if workers are enjoying themselves they can think clearly and spot new product opportunities.

QED so.

For further coverage, visit our IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium microsite.

Photo: A Google office in Korea

View a highlight of Dr Jay Chopra’s talk at the IRCHSS & IRCSET Postdoctoral Symposium here:

Dr Jay Chopra, innovation fellow at Pfizer 

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years