Play helps people embrace the thrill of uncertainty and curiosity and see obstacles and challenges as opportunities for growth. There’s, unfortunately, a common misconception that play is antithetical to productivity and anti-work. This is a lie. Play packs all of the benefits and essential tools needed for one to succeed in the workplace.
Why is Play in The Workplace Important?
Research repeatedly shows that when you are in a play-like state, you learn faster and retain knowledge more efficiently. It also shows that teams and groups that have fun together in the workplace are more productive, have higher levels of psychological safety, and collaborate better.
Play is immersive—when you’re engaged in play, you’re completely consumed by the activity and the moment and flooded with chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (what I like to refer to as D.O.S.E).
When we experience this release of neurochemicals, we experience a boost in creativity, and we connect and collaborate better with others—all essential factors for workplace success. Play puts you on the fastest track to productivity and success in the workplace.
Don’t we need more of this in our organizations? YES, of course, we do. It’s a no-brainer!
Before diving into a strategy for creating more fun in the workplace, one of the most important things to remember is that leadership needs to model this behavior. Creating a playful workplace requires buy-in from the entire organization, and it starts at the top.
For example, if a leader promotes taking time off, but they don’t take any time off themselves, the people in their care will not feel like it’s actually not acceptable to take time off. Whoever is the highest ranking person, it’s how they behave that will trickle down.
If you take time to put things in place to make a playful and fun work environment, and leaders don’t model this behavior, the people below them aren’t going to take it seriously. They need leaders who are going to be the models.
What Does Play at Work Look Like?
You’re probably wondering what exactly a playful workplace looks like, one that doesn’t eat away at productivity and time in the day.
Maybe you haven’t played since you were a kid and can’t exactly remember how to play. Well, here’s the thing, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to playing. It’s going to vary from person to person. It’s not all about cookie cutter and generic, like adding ping pong tables to the break room and adding a team happy hour to the calendar once a month.
It’s important to understand the team’s makeup and preferences. One’s personality determines how one plays; how one plays and derives joy from work is as unique as they are.
As you may know from reading this blog, Vanessa uses the Big 5 Personality Traits in her work, also known as OCEAN. The research shows that everyone is made up of five basic traits.
(Watch her video to see where you may fall among the Big 5. )
When you understand the team’s makeup, you’ll start to understand that some of your team members who are low in extroversion and openness might not see a team happy hour as fun or playful. These are things to keep in mind when bringing more play opportunities into the workplace.
It’s important to serve your unique team and find out their preferences and how you can create an environment that supports that. To help people get reacquainted with their playful selves, I point them in the direction of Dr. Stuart Brown.
In his book, Play, Brown breaks down eight different Play Personalities. I also like to utilize an extra one with credit to Gwen Gordon, giving us nine Play Personalities to choose from.
The nine Play Personalities are:
The Joker: Your play always revolves around fun nonsense. You enjoy practical jokes or always have a joke to tell to entertain those around you. You’re comfortable being silly and delight in making people laugh.
The Kinesthete: You feel playful when you are moving, whether that is through athletics, yoga, dance, or even jumping rope. You may like competition, but as a kinesthete, the goal of these activities is just pure movement.
The Explorer: You love to explore new places or gather new experiences through travel, adventure, research, or diving into different points of view. You may also enjoy exploring your inner world through meditation, psychedelic drugs, music, or simple movement.
The Competitor: You like specific rules and playing to win. You feel exhilarated when competing on a sports field, in a board game, in the boardroom, or even competing against yourself.
The Director: You enjoy organizing, planning, and orchestrating events. You love being the one in charge and planning out others’ roles. You’re comfortable being the center of attention.
The Collector: You play by gathering the most interesting objects or experiences. You may travel the world to collect cultural experiences or surround yourself with things like clothing, equipment, memorabilia, or the latest technology gadgets. You also enjoy collecting exciting experiences, like traveling to each continent.
The Artist/Creator: You love to make things, whether it’s something beautiful, something functional, or even something silly. It may include gardening, cooking, cutting hair, or music. You may never show anyone your creation, but your intrinsic joy is found in the act of creating and self-expression.
The Storyteller: Your play focuses on fantasy and imagination. You may love to perform or write or do improv theater. You immerse yourself in literature and movies and enjoy feeling the emotions and experiences of the characters.
The Connector: You love most forms of social play, whether it’s a good party, networking, a religious or spiritual ritual, a political rally, or a barn raising. You don’t need to be in charge, but if it involves connections and the sense of being part of a tribe or community, for you, it’s play.
Which one resonates the most with you? Are there a few that stand out? It’s likely that you have a mix of several different Play Personalities, but you may find that one or two are more dominant.
How to Create Play in The Workplace
Now that you understand the benefits of incorporating play and fun into the workplace let’s execute it! Whatever you do, make sure you’re being intentional in your play-action plan. So before you try any of my tips, follow my “Playful M.A.P.” so that you can be as intentional as possible.
Method – How are you going to execute the fun or playfulness? Is it a game/activity?
Audience – Who are the people going to receive this, and what are their preferences when it comes to play
Purpose – What is your intention? To lighten the mood? To increase productivity? Bring the team closer together?
Now let’s get into some tactical tips to bring play into the workplace.
Play = mindset
While play is absolutely an action and a behavior, I like to focus on play as a mindset. Managers who bring a playful spirit to the workplace are seen as more knowledgeable—there’s something about a manager who can bring a lightheartedness to the right moments that people really respect.
Add play during inflection points
While there are innumerable ways to bring more play into the workplace through exercises and games, keep in mind that even a little bit of play goes a long way. Consider what the inflection points are in your workday and where you can add playfulness organically into it. Do we need to drum up more energy before a meeting? Do we need an energy boost in the middle of the day? Do you need to instill intentional breaks for your team throughout the day for people to recharge?
Create play opportunities by invitation
Avoid making play “mandatory.” If you’re making your happy hours and team-building activities mandatory, they lose their spark and lose their power. Extend opportunities for play by invitation.
Finally, here are some ideas that you can implement right away to spice up ordinary work activities and make them more fun.
How to play in virtual meetings
If you are running the meeting, arrive early and have music playing as people are arriving. This will get people in a good mood and eliminate that awkward silence while people are coming online. You can level up the meeting even further by varying the music depending on the type of meeting.
Play the Red, Yellow, Green Game
When we have in-person meetings, it’s a lot easier to read your colleagues and understand how they may be feeling. When you are meeting on zoom, it can be challenging to have that understanding. The Red, Yellow, Green Game is a fun way to check in with your team before starting the meeting. Paste the following into the chat and have the attendees reply back with how they are feeling.
🔴Red – Overwhelmed. Not really feeling it, but here
🟡Yellow – Challenged. Feeling alright, but could be better.
🟢Green – Ready. Feeling energized and ready to go!
Understanding how your team members are feeling will allow you to adjust the meeting accordingly. This level of empathy will increase the level of trust and understanding across the team.
How to play in 1-on-1 meetings
Walk it out
If the weather is nice, consider having a walking meeting. This will allow you to mix it up a little and get work done while moving your body. Walking improves productivity, boosts energy levels, and enhances general well-being.
Pro tip: want to gain rapport with the person you are walking with? Match their stride. This subtle mirroring technique will make them feel more comfortable. If you are a remote team, you can still have virtual walking meetings where you are on the phone and walking separately.
How to play during brainstorming sessions
Play the alternate uses game
This is a fun icebreaker game that is designed to prime the brain to think differently, which is exactly what you need when you want to be innovative. The setup is simple and can be played virtually or in person. All you need is a few random objects.
You hold up the object, and every person takes turns saying all the things the object can be other than what it is. There are no wrong answers, and you can repeat something that has already been said. Once you get to a point where you have exhausted all the ideas, you move on to the next object. For example, if the object was a cup, someone could hold it up to their eye and say eye patch, the next person might turn it upside down and say a mini bongo, and so on.
Vote on ideas through a blind voting
Making decisions often introduces biases. You think you are making a logical decision but often, the people in the room can influence your decision. To take the bias out of the equation, I recommend doing blind voting. This is often more fun and less stressful than everyone raising their hands for the choice they like the best. If you are in person, you can have everyone write their answer on a sticky and pass it up to the leader, who will tally. Another option is to do rank voting with dot stickers. You have all of the ideas on the wall, and each attendee gets 3 sticky dots to vote on the ideas they like the best. They can spread the ideas around or use all three on the same concept. If you are in a virtual environment, platforms like Zoom have polling features with an anonymous feature.
Prioritize tasks by playing Stop, Start, Continue
Stop, Start, Continue is a game that I learned from Vanessa and is a playful way to help your team be more productive, encourage deeper collaboration, and assess what tasks are working and which aren’t. Check out the video Vanessa created below to learn how to play Start, Stop, Continue.
Go Forth and Play!
Play is anything but the nemesis of productivity. When used intentionally, play will bring joy and energy to your work.
So the next time you hear someone say, “I don’t have time for play. I have too much work to do,” remind them that play is actually the cheat code to increased productivity, better communication, collaboration, and creativity across your team, and ultimately a better bottom line. Now, go forth and PLAY!
This guest post is by Gary Ware of Breakthrough Play and the author of Playful Rebellion: Maximize Workplace Success Through The Power of Play. Be sure to follow him on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter.