Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 35;   August 28, 2019: Playing at Work

Playing at Work

by

Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean.
A dog playing catch with a disc

A dog playing catch with a disc. They're amazingly skillful and enthusiastic disc catchers. The fact that they can't throw at all doesn't seem to bother them in the least. Unlike most other mammal species, dogs enjoy being playful throughout their lives. Humans do too. Maybe that's why we get along so well.

As the old saw goes, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And unlike many old saws, recent research confirms the essence of the thought, though perhaps not in the way some would have predicted. As we're now learning, it isn't enough to balance work hours with some prescribed number of play hours. For some kinds of work, we get better results when we integrate play into work [Brown 2010]

To understand what this means, let's begin by characterizing play.

A play activity isn't defined by the precise nature of the activity. What makes an activity a play activity is the frame of mind of the player. For example, a game of tennis can be "play" if the people in the game are two old friends relaxing on a weekend morning. But a game of tennis is very definitely not "play" if it's a tryout between two competitors for the position of tennis pro at a leading tennis club.

Play is a state of mind. From this perspective, games and toys are the vehicles we use to create the playful state of mind. What contributes to a playful state of mind for playing at work can vary from person to person. Here are five attributes of play activity.

It has no goals directly related to work
To the extent that the activity has work-related goals, it constitutes actual work, and therefore cannot be play. The more directly the activity's goals are related to work, the less likely the activity is to be play — the less likely it is to induce a playful state of mind. And the directness of the relationship to work is determined not only by the activity designer but also by the player and how the player plays.
Defining an activity's relationship to work can be tricky, because so much depends on the players' habits of thought. For example, a game of badminton between supervisor and subordinate can be very stressful for the subordinate if the supervisor is known to be a sore loser. For that subordinate, that game of badminton can actually be work.
If you're Play is a state of mind. Games and
toys are two of the vehicles we use
to create the playful state of mind.
devising play opportunities for a workgroup, keep in mind two guidelines: (a) competitions create some risk of re-creating work situations, and (b) some people can find ways to make any activity competitive.
Participation is voluntary
Pressure to participate in the activity — pressure from any source — tends to convert it from play to work. For example, participation in the company softball league could be play if the players don't feel compelled to play; but it's work if people feel that participation is expected. Compulsory participation can make softball part of the job.
Pressure from the employer or representatives of the employer converts an activity intended to be play into work more effectively than does pressure from peers, but the difference in effectiveness might be relatively unimportant.
It's unscheduled, or its schedule is unrelated to work
Participants are more likely to experience as voluntary any activities that are unscheduled, such as using a climbing wall, or playing a pickup game of basketball.
But scheduling is sometimes necessary, as it would be for a disc golf outing at a local course. If scheduling is necessary, choose a time that's unlikely to conflict with work events. Conflicting with the timing of work events causes people to choose between work and play. Even if they choose play, the choice can create stresses that defeat the purpose of the play.
It has one or more unique rules that guide the behavior of the players
Players must abide by rules that generate behavior and interactions that differ markedly from everyday behavior and interactions. This is the fundamental principle of brainstorming [Osborn 1963]
For example, a speech game might require everyone to speak like Yoda [LaFrance 2015].
The interactions it produces are unrelated to workplace interactions
Among the many benefits of workplace play are the interactions between colleagues in the play context. These interactions are beneficial when they provide participants with opportunities to experience each other in unexpected ways. When these ways are more directly related to the participants' humanity than are the interactions associated with work, participants learn to see each other more as people than as people in workplace roles.
These opportunities are more likely to be beneficial when the play produces interactions unrelated to workplace interactions.

Applying these ideas

The five factors above are helpful when evaluating options for what's often called interactive training for team development. Programs that offer a variety of playful simulations of generic workplace situations are more likely to yield helpful outcomes if they take the above five factors into account.

For example, creating separation from the everyday work environment is a theme that runs through all of the above factors. That suggests advantages for programs that immerse employees in classes away from the workplace — at retreats, for example. Even better: programs conducted at a distance from the workplace and attended largely by people from other organizations. Such formats are least likely to carry the "baggage" of the everyday work environment into any playful simulations or other interactions included in the program.

But closer to home, we can incorporate play into collaborative problem solving in the everyday context. The principle benefit of such a strategy is trust building. Practicing playfulness makes it easier for people to suggest innovative approaches to shared problems, because they know it's safe to do so. So-called "out of the box thinking" (I dislike that overused metaphor) becomes easier, less intimidating and far more common.

To make this happen, take into account the culture of the organization. The riddles, trivia questions, puzzles, and brainteasers that appeal to one group of people might not appeal to another.

I'll close with a puzzle for you: devise a fun activity that can take place at work, and which causes people to work together to achieve a non-work-related goal. Extra credit: devise such an activity that encourages interactions across sites in a virtual team. Go to top Top  Next issue: How Messages Get Mixed  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Brown 2010]
Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery, 2010. Order from Amazon.com Back
[Osborn 1963]
A.F. Osborn, Applied Imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition), New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963. Back
[LaFrance 2015]
Adrienne LaFrance, "An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has," The Atlantic, December 18, 2015, Available here. Back

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