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. Top Next Issue
Love the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to
avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering
this kind of knowledge more systematically.
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- The Questions Not Asked
- Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves
it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- Big, Complicated Problems
- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we
can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems,
find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.