PETALUMA -- Short-staffed office workers feeling the squeeze of deadlines increasingly are reaching for Office Playground Inc.'s growing line of silly-styled squeeze toys and other daft diversions, so much so that the Novato-based business plans to significantly grow size in a move to Petaluma.

Office Playground (415-483-1196, www.officeplayground.com) leased 17,500 square feet of excess industrial space in the North Bay Drywall & Plastering building at 715 Southpoint Blvd. in Petaluma and is planning to relocate from 83 Hamilton Dr.  in Novato in the first half of July.

[caption id="attachment_55727" align="alignright" width="390"] Office Playground's catalog includes (clockwise from top left): Sandbox Combat Mission, Laughing Stress Ball, Zen Garden, Time Warp Clock, Slingshot Chicken, Executive Decision Maker and Balancing Bird[/caption]

"It was great to find the opportunity to expand without a lot of extra fixed cost," said Bill Ross, Office Playground chief executive officer. Because of lower lease rates in Petaluma, the rent there will be about as much as what the company is paying for less space, he added.

Job stress is a growing workplace productivity and public health problem, according to the American Psychological Association. In a 2007 survey by the professional group, three-quarters listed work as the biggest source of stress in their lives, and half said it affected productivity. The cost to business annually from absenteeism, turnover and insurance claims totals more than $300 billion.

Among the association's recommendations for dealing with work stress is taking 10- to 15-minute breaks away from job tasks and doing the same for lunch. Therapeutic playtime is Office Playground's marketing hook. 

[caption id="attachment_55728" align="alignleft" width="350"] Office Playground founders Kiersten and Bill Ross[/caption]

Except for flat sales growth in 2009 and the first half of 2010 in the aftermath of the economic recession, revenue has been rising since Mr. Ross and his wife, Chief Financial Officer Kiersten Ross, started the company in 1999. Sales for the past two years have been soaring like one of the collection's slingshot flying stuffed animals over office cubicle walls.

"From mid-2010 and in 2011 and year to date, we've been growing like crazy, at 50 percent year over year, and we're on that pace so far this year" he said. "The economy is not as harsh as it was for a couple of years."

Key to recent sales growth has been the addition of many new products, according to Mr. Ross. The online catalog now has nearly 2,000 items, ranging from stress-relief squeeze balls and toys such as woven finger traps to novelty Salvador Dali-esque "melting" wall clocks to desktop sandboxes for meditation exercises or miniature plastic military figure battles to kinetic-energy displays.

"We scan the globe, cherry pick from the best from toy, gift and novelty manufacturers, call it 'fun stuff for your desk' and market them to office workers," Mr. Ross said. 

The product selection is growing further. Mr. Ross has hired marketing and operations staff, so he can focus on generating more revenue. Two ways being explored now are getting back into branding products for volume sales and, as the company gets larger, designing products in-house.

"We made a strategic move out of promotional printing to build e-commerce and shuttered that part of the business when it became smaller," Mr. Ross said. "It was too resource-intensive to drive both businesses at one time."

The bulk of sales now are directly to consumers via the U.S. Postal Service and couriers, but promotional items require management of the technical aspects and schedules for printing jobs. Some companies don't mind the absence of corporate messaging and order hundreds or thousands of items as motivational or client gifts, according to Mr. Ross.

Because of demand from companies for promotional items, Office Playground likely will get back into promotional products next year, he said.

Office Playground currently employs 13, plus 10 more during the busy gift-giving time from late November through year-end. Year-round staffing likely will increase by a few with the Petaluma expansion, according to Mr. Ross.

Mike Thomason of Keegan & Coppin represented Office Playground in the lease negotiation. Michael Golden and Steven Leonard of Cassidy Turley represented 715 Southpoint owner Stephens Properties.