UW-Whitewater staff to get 1 day to sit and think

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus (UW-Whitewater file photo)

MILWAUKEE (AP) – A university marketing director is asking her staff to take a “thinking day” this summer, when employees will unplug from email and cellphones and just think about how they can do their jobs better.

Sara Kuhl, the director of marketing and media relations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said she hopes the experience leads to ideas and enhanced creativity. The concept has been around at least since the dot-com era, and has been both praised and ridiculed, but Kuhl said she’s confident her team will find the effort productive.

Kuhl got the idea from a TED talk, one of many short speeches by artists and intellectuals designed to share ideas.

She emailed her 12-person staff this week inviting them to spend one day thinking about what they do and how they can do it better.

“We’ll put up a sign that simply says, ‘I’m thinking today,'” she wrote. “And then you go about your thinking in whatever way inspires you most.”

That could involve visiting the library, walking around campus, watching TED talks or surfing online tutorials, she said.

Tom Altstiel, who teaches principles of advertising at Marquette University, was a little skeptical. He said people are often struck with inspiration at odd times, such as when they’re commuting or in the shower – not when they’re actively searching for ideas.

“It’s an interesting concept,” he said, “but I’m not sure how productive a person’s going to be if they’re just encouraged to sit and think deep thoughts for a day.”

IBM mocked the idea in one memorable commercial. A man walks in on a group of co-workers lying on the floor of a darkened conference room. They him they’re “ideating” to help them innovate. He furrows his brow, mumbles, “Good luck,” and turns the light back off.

Companies are also using other nontraditional tactics to encourage creativity. Offices might be decked out with children’s toys, skateboards and foosball tables, and workers might walk around barefoot or bring their pets to work.

In Minneapolis, one advertising agency gave its employees 500 paid hours of work time last year to pursue a passion. While the goal was to help enrich their workers’ lives, the owners figured the company would ultimately benefit too.

Kuhl predicts the thinking day will pay dividends in her department as well. At the end of the summer, staffers will report back on what they came up with, and she hopes that discussion spawns even more ideas.

Jeff Angileri, Kuhl’s assistant director, said he’s looking forward to his day. He plans to think about whether there’s a better way to do tasks that generally get approached the same way every time.

“I’ll probably come up with an agenda or some topics I want to reflect on and see where that takes me,” he said.

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