Pants. I put them on every weekdayPants. I put them on every weekday

Subreddits like r/BigCatGifs host a slow but steady drip of endearing GIFs of tigers and lions playing with watermelons and toys. They are often the result of zoo or rescue enrichment programs. As important as veterinary care and proper nutrition to the well-being of captive animals, enrichment programs typically focus on five types of enrichment: Habitat, Cognitive, Sensory, Food, and Toys. I’ve found that zoos are an orthogonally useful model for thinking about offices. In offices, we are animals stuck outside of our native habitat and this can make us listless and sad. We need enrichment programs too. Below I’ve organized my own thoughts about offices in relation to info from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on enrichment programs.

Habitat

  • Zoo: Keepers can manipulate multiple aspects of the animals’ environment, such as adding trees, vines, and perching, changing substrates, or providing new bedding and den options. This adds novelty and complexity to the animals’ lives.
  • Office: This is a hard one because the physical space tends to be very static due to the expense and disruption of changing locations or big remodels. Choice is an important thing here. I’ve tried to make sure our office has a range of types of spaces to work in that we can choose based on how we’re feeling or working. Additionally, we run an ongoing update/decoration program. Periodically, pairs of designers take ownership of a room, get a budget, and create a total environment,

 

Cognitive

  • Zoo: Positive reinforcement training sessions are excellent cognitive enrichment; it gives the animals a chance to exercise their minds. Participation in research projects offers mental stimulation (i.e., foraging skills research with giant pandas, memory research with orangutans, color vision tests with monitor lizards).
  • Office: I’ve definitely gotten into a zombie haze of sameness. Breaks from the office in the form of conferences help. In the office, switching projects or picking up a side project, especially when it requires that you learn a new skill, helps keep things fresh. On the micro-level, introducing thought experiments to 1x1s or team meetings is an easy way to stretch the mind out.

Sensory

  • Zoo: A keeper can introduce natural predator or prey scents, in addition to novel smells, such as spices or diluted perfumes. Taped sounds or vocalizations can simulate things that an animal may hear in the wild.
  • Office: Smell and sound are so personal, subjective, and intensely experienced that I don’t mess with them at all. This is the one where it really seems like animals are different than us. Even potpourri in a conference room drives me nuts.

Food

  • Zoo: This is the most widely used form of enrichment. Keepers can present an animal’s normal diet as well as new food items in a variety of ways such as in a puzzle feeder, hidden, buried or scattered throughout the enclosure, or in frozen ice treats. It is important for the Zoo’s animals to work for their food, just as their wild counterparts do. 
  • Office: Tech has this one down. Snacks stocked in the kitchen. Breakfast-taco-Mondays or Bagel-Fridays. Catered lunches. I try to bring in something random and interesting to a team meeting every once in a while. Most recently, a haul of unusual-for-us snacks from the Asian Market by my house like eel-flavored chips and green-tea chocolate. I’m guilty of this as well, but office food tends to be wildly unhealthy. Something to work on. Our admin does stock a supply of fresh fruit that goes quick.

Toys

  • Zoo: These items can include burlap bags, sheets, boomer balls, chew toys or hammocks. Often, novel objects will be combined with food-related enrichment.
  • Office: I think I speak for a sizable portion of the adult population in tech when I say that I’m tired of Nerf guns because their use is often disruptive to everyone but the people playing. There are at least a couple of foam balls under the chair I’m currently sitting in. We also have vintage arcade games and gaming consoles. I feel like this one is ripe for exploration and variety. Last year, the design team did a happy hour at a crafting bar where you order a project off the menu and everyone sits at a long table and makes stuff like stencil paintings, leather coasters, or a charm necklace. An arts & crafts room might be worth trying.