Heard the one about the comedy workshops for stressed-out executives? No, it's not a joke: employers have at last realised that a happy team is a creative one, writes Anita Chaudhuri

Send in the clowns

Not long ago stressed-out executives at embattled Marks & Spencer were packed off on a training course. Nothing unusual in that. After all if there's one thing guaranteed to set racing the pulse of a middle manager, it's the prospect of a day off work, locked in a room with a jug of coffee and a board of motivational acronyms.
But the M&S team was in for a surprise. There was no time management seminar, no flashy flip-charts. Instead they were faced with cardboard, paint and glue - not that useful when it comes to working out how to sell cashmere cardigans.
Organised by the creativity group Oracy, the day-long session required each delegate to create a mask to represent the face they presented at work. "Mask-making is a very effective corporate tool," says Charlene Collison of Oracy. "Often people create faces that are anxious and alienated. It helps them access their intuitive, imaginative skills."
It's an unconventional approach but one that is catching on fast. The business sections of booksellers' are crammed with creativity manuals such as The Artist's Way At Work, a corporate version of Julia Cameron's million-selling 12-step programme for blocked creatives. Further proof comes in the guise of London comedy club Jongleurs, which has launched a corporate programme to inspire stressed executives by teaching them how to do stand-up routines.
Creativity has become a prized commodity, even in such professions as accountancy. Whereas once we could drag ourselves into work, safe in the expectation of doing nothing more taxing than, er, work, now bosses have other ideas. They have begun to see that if you sit in a boring meeting in a boring conference room, you will emerge with boring ideas.
Work, it seems, is no longer working. "Play is becoming the buzzword," says Patrick Burns, policy director of the Industrial Society. "As companies become desperate to harness creativity and lateral thinking, they are being forced to look at new ways of fostering those talents. These days we are seeing everything from mime, circus skills and comedy to finger-painting and story-telling."
The roots of the play industry lie on the other side of the Atlantic. Ten years ago the marketing firm Play pioneered the techniques now taking off here. Staff at Play invent their own superheroes and costumes. They have an office play-room and a company dog which is picked up for work even when its owner is away, and there are no conventional job titles. Instead employees have business cards printed with peculiar slogans such as "What if" and "Voice of reason".
"When you turn work into a place that encourages people to be themselves, have fun and take risks, you unleash their creativity. The best ideas come from playful minds and the way to tap into that playfulness is to play together," says Andy Stefanovich, Play's 33-year-old co-founder. Maria Kempinska, co-founder of Jongleurs, says: "All companies are hungry for new ideas, but if you push and pull in a pressured environment, ideas rarely come. Forward-looking companies realise a good atmosphere at work and good relations with colleagues are crucial to hanging on to staff. Teaching them how to laugh with each other and communicate honestly is a good start."
Kempinska admits that the companies that sign up are the ones that
have least need for it: young, gung-ho firms in new media and advertising. Jim Andrews of Thinc! Digital, a new media firm, was one such guinea pig. "I do a lot of presentations, and you do them in a linear way. This made me think laterally. Some companies send people on adventure things. This is another way of getting people focused and excited."
Charlene Collison believes creativity breeds confidence. "We also do story-telling workshops. The Humberside Training and Enterprise Council found these particularly beneficial. There was one woman who presented a story about how nervous she felt giving a presentation to the board. She said she felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights and her teeth felt too big for her mouth. So we acted out a story with her as the rabbit. The humour of it allowed her to overcome that fear."
It all sounds worryingly new age, but Oracy has been called in by SmithKline Beecham, Hedron, Chesterton Property and government agencies. It has also worked with staff at the Industrial Society. "We asked them to describe the society as if it were a landscape," Collison says. "At first everyone talked about how it was a beautiful, serene place. Then someone described a bog, another a volcano about to erupt. It's all about encouraging better communication."
Collison believes the benefits are tangible. "We've had lots of feedback about how staff bring more passion and ideas to their work. They take more risks and are more honest."
There are signs that the spirit of playfulness has its uses beyond rescuing companies from creative bankruptcy. Phil Besley of Fools Gold runs clown workshops for the likes of Norwich Union, Warwick university and British Gas. He claims playing can help employees confront their inner fears. "We get people to write a story about a situation that's bothering them, then we clown it. It's not about being funny, it's about developing self-expression. A clown is like a shaman, he can transform difficult issues."
One suspects British Gas won't like to be reminded that their employees have this special skill next time one of us decides to quibble about our bill.

The Guardian Weekly 20-1-2000