Work Zone: Toys that find their way into the workplace can relieve stress, boost productivity

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Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette
By Brian Hyslop, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A toy that finds its way to a student's desk could be seen as a distraction and end up locked away by a teacher.

But a toy that finds its way to an employee's desk could be seen as an inexpensive way to boost morale and even productivity.

"It's going to vary, depending on the company and the people who run it," says Bill Ross, founder, chief executive officer and president of Office Playground, a Novato, Calif.-based supplier of office toys (officeplayground.com). He notes that some more formal workplaces may frown on toys designed for the office.

But whether they are proudly displayed on a desk or tucked into a drawer, office toys are as ubiquitous as the cubicle.

Mr. Ross, who has 10 toys on his desk, estimates that the average person has two to three, while "power users" have about 20 to 30.

While his company sells to individuals, it also sells in bulk to companies that use office toys as rewards, incentives, ice breakers and stress relievers. "It burns off steam instead of a two-hour lunch." Stress-relief toys are particularly popular with desk jockeys.

"Everyone wants to fiddle," Mr. Ross says.

One of the most sought after of the stress-relief toys is the Tangle, a twistable cable of interlocking plastic pieces invented by Pittsburgh native Richard X. Zawitz.

"It does wonderfully," Mr. Ross said. "One of our all-time best-selling products. It's a classic tactile hand toy. It's just addictive. Richard Zawitz is a genius."

Mr. Zawitz, a 60-year-old Squirrel Hill native and Allderdice High School graduate, also is a sculptor. His "Statue of Infinity," which is based on the Tibetan Infinite Knot, inspired the Tangle. He founded Tangle Inc. (tangletoys.com) in San Francisco in 1981.

The toy, which he notes is the only product to be sold both at Wal-Mart stores and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, sold 10 million units last year, he said.

"What differentiates the Tangle [from other stress-relief toys] is that it's an aesthetic device as well as a functional object," Mr. Zawitz says. "Those other devices are one dimensional. With a Tangle, the reason it's so successful is that has multidimensional uses."

He says that in addition to easing stress, Tangle can be used for hand therapeutic exercises, as an aid in smoking cessation, as an ice breaker, a giveaway at trade shows and as a tool to spur creativity.

"Fidget-friendly toys enable the brain stem to become more active, which in turn causes better learning," he says.

Mr. Ross agrees: "When your hands are busy, your mind opens."

While Tangle has been so successful that it has evolved into a ball that Mr. Zawitz says he is trying to have sold at Findlay-based Dick's Sporting Goods locations, all office toys are not so successful.

"Items we've discontinued tend to be things that aren't playful or tactile, such as novelty bookends or statues," says Mr. Ross, explaining the fate of Cat Buddha and a phrenology head, both of which no doubt ended up on the Island of Misfit Office Toys. "We do better with the interactive stuff than with things that just sit there and you look at them."


Brian Hyslop can be reached at bhyslop@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1936.


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