Natasha Ashton: How to balance play and productivity in the workplace

Natasha Ashton

Natasha Ashton, co-CEO, Petplan

It’s no secret it takes a lot of energy to grow explosively. And vision, planning, passion, talent and good old-fashioned elbow grease. But what is less well-known, and even less understood, is that it also takes fun. Not 5 p.m.-happy-hour fun or weekend-in-Vegas fun. The sort of fun that makes you want to get out of bed every day. The fun you have when you’re doing something that matters. The fun that comes with an unexpected treat, celebrating your colleagues’ successes, laughing out loud and loving what you do. 

At Petplan, we’ve been fortunate to have grown explosively, despite the challenging economy. While we know much of our success is down to what we learned at business school, our secret sauce is dedication to creating a company that, above almost everything else, balances productivity with play. Here are a few ways we try to do it.

Strengthen your core

When your company’s core values are clearly defined, making decisions is (relatively) easy. Regardless of how exciting an opportunity may seem, if it doesn’t support your core values, it probably isn’t right for you. As an organization of pet lovers, pets’ health and well-being is at the forefront of every decision we make. Our unwavering philosophy in this area has been tested time and again, and our decisions to decline unfit opportunities have been more than validated.

Culture club

Likewise, don’t be afraid to pass over talented people who may not be a great fit for your company’s culture. There’s more to a great team than talent. While skills can be taught, passion and personality tends to be part of the package or not.

One of the first questions we ask almost everyone we meet is, “Do you have pets?” The answer tells us how closely their own passions mirror our core values. We only hire outgoing, bright, articulate, enthusiastic pet lovers, which, not coincidentally, is a description of our customers. We encourage our staff to bring their pets to work, a perk enjoyed by all. It’s hard not to want to deliver exceptional service when you’ve got a dog at your feet or a cat attempting to curl up on your keyboard!

Lighten up

Would you take a client to a restaurant with gray walls and bad lighting? Of course not. Color and light has a psychological impact on people, so use it to reinforce your brand and your culture. We chose a bright yellow, which many people associate with happiness, as our company’s signature color. It’s painted on accent walls in our offices and is a dominant color on our website and all our marketing materials. Consider using color to help your employees exude your company’s personality — in our case, fun and friendly — to your customers.

Treat ’em right

Author Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” We think she was on to something, which is why everyone who works at Petplan gets their own personalized treat jar for their desk, and there is a communal treat table we keep filled with staff and visitor favorites. It’s a small perk, but it reinforces our belief that hard work can be punctuated by playful pick-me-ups now and then.

Pat yourselves on the back

Whether it is an individual accomplishment or a company milestone, take a moment to recognize the achievement. When one of our claims adjusters passes an exam, we order mini cupcakes for everyone. When we debuted at 123rd on Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest-growing privately held companies last year, we filled the office with balloons and had a party. We try to always take a moment to recognize our achievements as we go full-speed ahead toward our ultimate goal – being the world’s first billion-dollar pet insurance company.

Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance and its quarterly glossy pet health magazine, “Fetch!” — both of which are headquartered in Philadelphia. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at [email protected]