The Power of Play in the Workplace

When we were children, play was how we learned. We learned to invent and execute on ideas; we learned about teamwork and how to get along with others; we learned to problem-solve and get things done and be creative — all while having fun.

Most children are not aware that they are learning while having fun, but they most certainly are. Over the years as we progressed through traditional school, we were gradually weaned off the “learn by play” we experienced in childhood, and fun was replaced by a new, more serious learning model consisting of reading, writing, studying, remembering, and testing.

This second model of learning more closely reflects the modern workplace. While these things are not necessarily wrong — after all, we all needed to learn to read and write and get things done — the question many are now asking is whether have embraced this model to closely at the expense of the benefits play brought to our learning and our lives.

Many major employers like LinkedIn, Netflix, IDEO, and Google are changing this paradigm. Instead of thinking of play at work as an inappropriate distraction and waste of time (taking away from “real” work), they are acknowledging and embracing what play brings to the workplace.

Defining What ‘Play’ Is

Play by definition, is simply having fun, being joyful and energized. Wouldn’t it be great if all employees were having fun while at work? Wouldn’t joyful, energized employees also be more happy and productive?

In his book, Play, author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, compares play to oxygen: “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”

How does play show up in your life? Games, art, books, sports, movies, music, creative pursuits? More importantly, how do you feel when you partake in these activities? I’m guessing more creative, alive, happy, energized, connected and unstressed? I’m also thinking that when you have fun, you’re learning.

Claire Pczyetelc, a researcher and PhD candidate at the Research School of Management, Australian National University, has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. Play is also positively associated with job satisfaction, a sense of competence and creativity. Her studies also show that when a participant receives a task that is presented playfully, they are more involved and spend more time on the task.

The research further suggests that the upsides of play extend beyond the individual. Teams of workers can benefit from play via increased trust, bonding and social interaction, a sense of solidarity, and a decreased sense of hierarchy. Moreover, play at work can benefit whole organizations by creating a friendlier work atmosphere, higher employee commitment to work, more flexible organization-wide decision making and increased organizational creativity.

Bringing the Good Life to Work

Still not convinced? Jonathan Fields, creator of The Good Life Project and producer of the “Duct Tape Marketing Podcast” believes that every business and every employee can benefit by purposefully adding elements of play to daily routines and organizational process. Fields says the following about the benefits of play:

  • Play is a great way to connect: People are drawn to playfulness. Playful handbooks, emails and policies help people feel good about this thing we call work.
  • Play is super food for creativity: Creativity is the life-blood of any vibrant business and most of the work we end up doing leads to clogged creativity over time. Add play and watch how the creativity begins to re-flow.
  • Play builds teamwork: The basic framework of most games depends upon teammates working together, within a set of rules, to achieve a common objective. That’s the definition of a healthy work environment.
  • Play reduces stress: Work can be downright stressful at times and play provides an outlet to reduce the physical and mental damages caused by stress.
  • Play doesn’t seem like work: When you are engaged in a game you enter what psychiatrist and writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as a flow state. Turning objectives into games are can keep work fun and everyone in the “FLOW.”

Put Play Into Action

Throw the old paradigm away. What if instead of wasting time and preventing people from doing “real” work, play contributed to greater creativity, productivity, teamwork, less stress and an engaged culture. Wouldn’t it be worth a try?

Here are a few ways to increase the fun and flow in your organization:

  • Celebrate — a lot: Celebrating both company and individual wins is a great way to bring the team together in a common experience. Everyone feels good about those successes and doing something fun to celebrate is motivating and creates positive connections to the work.
  • Encourage fun: Make your office a place where fun happens. Surprise everyone by ordering in lunch or by starting out the day with coffee and pastries in the kitchen. Create an atmosphere where laughter is welcome (and shared). Buy some board games or a Wii for your lunch room. Take designated play breaks. Make fun part of everyone’s daily routine.
  • Create healthy competition: Hold contests for both work and non-work related activities. Consider a contest for the best idea to reduce your carbon footprint in the office or the best idea to increase efficiency in a certain area. Similarly, you might start a wellness initiative where staff teams compete against one another or in teams.
  • Organize team social events: Teams benefit from getting together outside work to socialize: a baseball game, a summer BBQ, bowling, mini-golf. In addition to actually doing something fun, people get to see different sides of each other. They also get to rub shoulders with people (e.g. in different departments) that they don’t get to see every day, creating greater cohesion across the company.
  • Implement creative days: Set aside a day or two a year when the entire team gets to work on something creative outside of their ordinary work roles. Mix them up so they’re working with people they don’t normally work with. It can be about planning for the future, or around a specific element of your business (launching a new product, for example). Where could you benefit from the collective creativity of your team to move something forward or innovate for the future? End the day with a celebration – bring in dinner and have a meal together.
  • Support National Fun at Work Day: Yes, there is such a thing. January 28 is National Fun at Work day. Set up a committee now to plan what you’ll do to celebrate on January 28, 2020.

Playing it Forward Pays

The evidence is overwhelming — employees who have fun at the office are more likely to feel satisfied in their jobs and do better work. There’s no need to break the bank to bring fun into the workplace. Just taking a walk together in the middle of the day, having an impromptu office party or enjoying a sweet treat together can be enough to bring coworkers together and make the workday more fun.

So take the plunge. Look at play as a path to greater productivity, not less. Where do you find play in your life and how can you bring that into the workplace? Ask your team for ideas. They might surprise you!

Mary Poppins may have said it best. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” How will you make that come true in your workplace?

Need more ideas?

Here is another great article with 25 ways to have fun at work.

 


 

As principal of SMART HR, Ingrid Vaughan supports managers and organizational leaders in growing their leadership skills and expanding their HR toolkits, giving them confidence and competence for more effective people management and culture building.

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