Resources and insights

5 reasons why play is the future of work

Whether you are a leader who has sailed through the past two years (if so, what’s your secret? Asking for a friend), or one who is coming through a turbulent period of change, you’ll no doubt have seen increasing mention of the “future of work”. It’s often central to the debate around what is being dubbed the Great Reassessment, as swathes of us reevaluate our relationship with our work, and reflect on what is important to us. 

From our work at Playfilled we’re seeing five key trends that you can act upon now to help you, your team and your organisation navigate 2022 and beyond. Spoiler: play shows up in each one of them. Okay, we’re biased – but evidence shows that play is the most natural path for approaching work differently and enabling long-term success.

1. Learn to learn, (re)learn and (un)learn

The concept of unlearning and relearning is not new, but it’s never been more relevant. The pandemic has been the ultimate crash course in adopting a learner’s mindset; embracing the natural discomfort that comes from letting go of the old and assimilating the new. Whether that’s learning how to use unfamiliar software when working from home, finding ways to switch off when boundaries between work and home are blurred, or grappling with the new protocols that we face just to get a loaf of bread – the past two years have ushered in change at speed.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

Such change in our workplaces requires an overhaul of roles and processes but also, more fundamentally, a rethink of behaviours and mindset. New ways of working are emerging, while others are changing or even disappearing from the workplace for good. Bringing more play, the accelerated path to learning, into teams is one way that leaders can navigate this changing landscape.

Play is our learning instinct and drives performance; it is the quickest and most impactful way to acquire knowledge. Play is tied to curiosity, experimentation and exploring challenging problems. (Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, authors of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation)

Organisations can encourage play by giving employees licence to playfully personalise and explore in their work. According to Dr Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play in the US, play literally creates new neural networks in the brain – priming individuals to learn new skills, adapt to processes and grow into changing roles.

2. Rise to meet the changing expectations of work

Dr Erin Fluegge-Woolf, Professor of Management at Southeast Missouri State University found that younger generations prioritise workplace fun in their job searches. They want to feel a combination of work and play, and increasingly seek organisations that align with their values. Motivating and retaining talent for the future calls for organisations to design engaging and enjoyable working environments.

This goes beyond foosball tables and quirky breakout areas. When personalised play is woven into our relationships and tasks at work, it increases purpose and connection. It is deeply engaging and motivating. Play is an intrinsic motivator: when people find a sense of play, they inherently enjoy what they’re doing. Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at ALBA Graduate Business School found that people naturally enter a state of “flow” or timelessness which creates experiences that are active, energetic and skill-focused. They also form natural connections and bonds with coworkers and with the organisation, increasing positive affect and engagement.

3. Use the power of data to personalise

Play is deeply personal. A deceptively simple word, it means different things to different people. When organisations use data to understand the diversity of their people’s play preferences, they are able to create personalised work experiences that tap into what motivates individuals and how they like to work, maximising opportunities to bring joy and lightness into everyday interactions such as team meetings. 

Forward-thinking organisations will move away from using data to monitor and react to employee sentiment, towards anticipating what motivates them. (Curious about how everyone on your team likes to play, and how that insight can build meaningful connection? Check out our Team Connector!)

“Play can transform work — it can bring back excitement and newness to a job, helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. True play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. Work does not work without play.” (Dr Stuart Brown)

4. Develop the 3Cs: Collaboration, creativity and communication

Communication and collaboration only happen when people feel confident and empowered to contribute. Without a culture of psychological safety, trust and experimentation, organisations run the risk of employees (and their good ideas) fading into the background – especially if they aren’t physically present during the full working week.

Play is the most natural way to energise people, spark innovation and deepen connection. It allows colleagues to transcend hierarchical structures at work and provides them with a safe place to explore ideas, communicate and reframe normal work routines.

In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr Stuart Brown tells the story of how two executives used play to turn around hardware giant Intel. When they needed a new product line to compete in the rapidly shifting computing market, these executives collaborated through imaginative play to design a new product. The result was the creation of microprocessors, the product that Intel is now famous for.

5. Design for resilience (over efficiency)

The twentieth century saw the rise of standardisation and process, with efficiency and productivity being the corporate ‘north star’ in driving growth. Already before Covid-19 swept through our lives, the tide was beginning to turn, with organisations becoming vulnerable to change. Sensing and responding to change is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened, and play is key to building up that muscle. 

Having the courage to bring more play into our work results in greater flexibility, adaptability and knowledge-sharing. This leads to improved decision-making, creative thinking and happier humans. Together, these qualities build resilient organisations which, rather than asking people to grit their teeth and “get through” change, instead create organisations capable of navigating uncertainty and positively coping with – perhaps even embracing – high levels of change.

Playfilled challenge: Which trend do you feel could be most impactful for your organisation over the next couple of years? If you have any questions on how to implement a more playful way of working in your organisation, please get in touch!

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