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Top 5 reasons we should play more at work

Posted Feb 28 2013 5:07am

No play at work!!

Jane works in HR in a large Danish organization where I was giving a speech about happiness at work. I talked to her in preparation for the speech to learn about their situation and challenges, and she told me the she and some co-workers wanted to do something fun for Halloween a few years back, so they carved pumpkins and put up decorations in hallways, meeting rooms, and offices.

The reaction from some co-workers was immediately dismissive and they were told in no uncertain terms that “this is a workplace, not a kindergarten.” They have not since attempted anything like that.

Pretty surprising considering Denmark was named the happiest country in the world in 2011 by a UN backed survey, right?

To most people, work and play are mutually exclusive. Work is serious, play is frivolous. Work is something you have to do, play is something you want to do. Work is hard, play is fun.

But does it really have to be that way? What would happen if we played more at work?

A while back, I asked the readers of this blog how they play at work and here are just a few examples.

How about introducing play into brainstorming:

When brainstorming for new ideas we wanted to exclude critical thinking and encourage divergent thinking. Rather than having a facilitator policing the workshops we introduced water pistols. Any mistimed critical thinking led to a soaking.

The pistols did not however become a distraction, they raised the energy levels massively and resulted in great, off the wall, ideas being proposed.

Even the house “Mr Negative” could not resist and started to come up with great ideas….after shooting himself several times as he realised that he was being negative before ideas had properly emerged.

Why not simply play a game on break time:

On Fridays, it’s not unusual for a game of darts to break out. We have a dart board in our office and it serves as a great way to take a break (a game usually lasts less than half an hour), build a little camaraderie, and get our minds off of work a bit. I have found that it’s a great team building activity and it actually makes work time more effective and productive.

Oh, and it’s fun, too.

One company even uses play in hiring:

Where I work, we do our best to weed out the unhappy and cynical employees before they even get hired.

After each candidate goes through his/her well-rehearsed and pre-meditated interviews with HR and management, the entire engineering team (it’s a small company) comes into the room, closes the door, and starts a game of Jenga like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile, we strike up a casual conversation with the candidate and insist he or she play with us.

Without fail, the candidates true colors are almost immediately revealed. Candidate scoffs at the idea of playing a game in an interview? Obviously too uptight for our group and not capable of handling rapidly changing situations. Focusing on Jenga also takes the candidate’s mind off of all of the pre-meditated answers and pages of ‘interview tips’ articles that we’ve all read at one point or another.

Works every time. We end up with engineers who are laid back and easygoing, but who know their stuff, and can think on their feet.

I have heard countless other great examples of workplaces making themselves more like playgrounds – and this is also good for business. Here are the top 5 reasons why it’s a good idea to mix work and play.

A play-break is a great way to laugh and focus on something besides work, emails, meetings, deadlines and clients. That break gives us a chance to relax during an otherwise busy work day and makes us less stressed.

In play you can be yourself and so can your co-workers – as in the Jenga-hiring-game above that brought out an applicant’s true self. Playing, especially together is a great way to build better relationships with your co-workers.

Play stretches the mind and makes us more creative. More and better ideas come to you when you’re in a playful state of mind than when you’re being serious and professional.

To many people, work is life and death, forever locked in a bloodthirsty, winner-take-all battle to end. No surprise that this attitude tends to make people cramp up mentally. Introducing play in the workplace gives us a break from this mentality and a chance to take ourselves less seriously.

But most of all, playing at work would serve to make a workplace happier – and we know from many studies, that a happy workplace is a profitable one!

There is a great case to be made for playing way more at work. And what’s more, introducing play can be fun and easy. It’s not without its challenges, and as we saw from the example above, some workplaces have an anti-play brigade that insists on keeping any and all aspects of fun and playfulness far away from the workplace.

Well nuts to them, I say – let’s do it anyway! I suggest we make the new battle cry in the workplace ”Wanna play?”

How do you play at work? Does your workplace even allow that kind of thing? What would happen if you made work a little more like play? Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

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