What is it with start-ups and ping-pong?

It’s 3:17pm and the developer who sits next to me plonks himself back into his chair. “Victory again” he says, before calmly continuing with the days work.

In our office, ping-pong is a fierce but sociable competition. Frequently throughout the day various pairs will take to the table and fight it out to 21-points — before laughing and amicably shaking hands. There are no less than three spreadsheets about a table tennis league in our communal Drive, but none show signs of movement beyond initial set-up. People want to play, but only for fun.

Ping-pong is often listed as one of the perks of working at any particular start-up. Personally, I don’t see the appeal of repeatedly failing to hit a ball over a net (I’m not very good!), but I seem to be in the minority. I was curious to find out what drove people to play possibly several games per day, and so asked my colleagues for their opinion.

“It feels great to iterate on your game and improve” says Kassem, a Product Manager and regular ping-pong participant — “I’m quite competitive”. For the Type-A individuals in the office, the ping-pong table is place where they can hone a skill and dominate. I can understand the appeal of working to better a skill, as we are all seeking improvement through the work we do day-to-day. In building new businesses we aim to shape the future and improve the world. Seeing measurable improvements, in ping-pong or in our products, appeals to our communal desire to grow.

But for many, playing a game of ping-pong is less about the game and more about the chance to spend time with colleagues without having to discuss work. “It’s a great way to build a bond with colleagues. When I was new it was an ice-breaker of sorts” says James from the Engineering team. I’ve seen people from all different projects and businesses play one another. When someone initiates a game, it doesn’t seem to matter if their opponent sits across the desk or across the room — it only matters that they are happy to take ten minutes out from their day to play a game.

That break from intense work is probably the main reason why my colleagues play table-tennis throughout the day. A game has become the ‘smoke-break’ for non-smokers: a change of pace which helps you refocus when you come back to work. “It’s to do with technology people being in an environment where its OK to take a break from trying to solve some fairly meaty problems” says Alistair, CEO of OnCare. From a practical perspective, designer Alissa said “the mild exercise wakes you up and lets you stretch your legs, but you don’t need to change clothes or go outside if the weather is bad”. Having sat at my desk for too many hours today, I can believe that dancing around the table probably has some significant physical and mental benefits I am missing out on.

Although ping-pong tables are an expected fixture in start-ups across the world, they are difficult to come across outside of offices. In London you can find a few bars which have a table, but it is rare for city-dwellers to have a table at home. “Having actually sought out table tennis venues for casual play over the years, I know it’s not easy to find them indoors” says our resident champion Omar. So although a table can be considered part of the clichéd ‘funky office space’ idea, it may actually be filling a need — for the dedicated ping-pong lovers, at least.

While writing this article, I felt the need to go and play a game of ping-pong. I lost (of course) but the one point I did successfully win caused me to happy-dance around the table. That’s a feeling I could get used to — maybe I’ll have to join my colleagues more often!

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