Resources and insights

Why what you think about play and work is wrong

Play /pleɪ/ Noun: Engagement in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose

Work /wəːk/ Noun: Engagement in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result

What feels like play to you, but looks like work to others? — Naval Ravikant 

Play and work are two words – and concepts – that are paired up as opposites. But when we look at their definitions, it’s clear that they are just labels; labels for different kinds of activities. Are these labels helping or hindering our experience of work? The post-industrial revolution has created the “myth of separate spheres” that separates work and play in “an attempt to enhance organisational efficiency, rationalisation, and profitability through control mechanisms,” says Ronit Kark, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Bar-Ilan University. But the reality is that play can transform work for both the individual and the business. 

Play remains surprisingly uncommon in most organisations, despite findings by academics Samuel West, Eva Hoff and Ingegerd Carlsson at Sweden’s Lund University in 2016 evidencing that most leaders believe that a fun work environment increases creativity and promotes group cohesiveness. So what is the difference between a leader who believes it and a leader who believes it and also acts upon it?

“A cultural transformation is currently underway in the business world. It is a transformation staged by progressive companies that break away from a 300-year-old work ethic that has tried, unsuccessfully, to exile play from the workplace. These companies have not merely opened the doors of their workplaces to play: they have placed play at the heart of a corporate culture in which discovery and invention thrive. Although these companies have youthful and playful cultures, they can be considered as the true grown-ups in the business landscape. They took a bold decision to break away from the past; they are not afraid to play.” (Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at ALBA Graduate Business School)

Some of these companies include Southwest, IDEO, and Google. Dr Claire Petelczyc and colleagues in the School of Management at Australia National University conducted research into how these organisations have successfully embraced and elevated play as a central aspect of their culture, seeing play as being core to their values — instead of a distraction.

So why do we need to bring more play into our work?

Playfilled work: Engagement in an activity in order to achieve a result in a way that maximises enjoyment and flow

It builds resilience and wellbeing

Dr. Petelczyc’s findings demonstrate that the cathartic nature of play provides psychological relief and the release of emotional tension by enabling individuals to express and release their frustrations and stress in ways that are not damaging or costly to themselves or to the organisation.

Other research shows that play can decrease absenteeism, stress, and health care costs. According to Dr Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play in the US, when people engage in play, it lowers the stress of work, resulting in less sickness, a more positive attitude and a more energised work environment.

It unlocks human potential

Work typically focuses on outcomes, whereas play focuses on means. But we needn’t make an ‘either / or’ decision; by reframing the work activities as play, “work” decisions will make allowances for intuition, emotion, and taking a leap of faith. According to Professor Kark, “these deviations from organisational norms facilitate expression and creativity.”

A product design and consultancy firm in Northern California regularly encourages employees to take part in “moonshine projects” — projects that have no design boundaries or client specifications, no budgets and no competitive products to consider. Research led by Professor Mainemelis in 2015 found this designated time for playful work practice enhanced creative thinking, generated new knowledge, improved employee morale and satisfaction, and built a visionary reputation for the organisation.

Creativity enables employees to use a “nonrigid thinking style” — to think outside the box. This thinking style is tied to positive emotions that broaden people’s cognitive scope. In 2019 Arnold Baaker, an industrial and organizational psychologist and Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology, demonstrated — along with research colleagues Yuri Sharp, Professor van der Linden and Dr. Kimberley Breevaart at Erasmus University Rotterdam — that individuals who experience fear channel attention and energy on a narrow set of behavioural options, whereas positive emotions such as joy or pride prompt people to explore, learn and be creative.

Play leads to individual mastery, providing opportunities for experimentation. “People cannot succeed in rising to the highest levels of their field if they don’t enjoy what they are doing; if they don’t make time for play. Without some sense of fun and play, people cannot make themselves stick to any discipline long enough to master it,” says Dr Brown.

It unleashes organisational purpose

‘Although on the surface the reality of play seems to contradict the very idea of work, play in fact creates new work for the future’ (Mainemelis and Ronson, 2006)

Play transforms the nature of an activity. Think of ‘play fighting’ where the fear, risk and objectives of a real fight are removed. It is different from real fighting. Like so, play transforms work tasks. According to research by Professor Mainemelis and Dr Sarah Ronson, Associate Professor at University College London, the task involves work activity and work products, but it is not performed with the conventional sense of obligatory, instrumental and efficiency-orientated activity.

It also transforms culture and connection

When people play together, they transcend the normal limitations of their work roles. They feel collectively safe to express and explore ideas and insights that at first may seem weird or inapplicable. Professor Mainemelis found that when teams play together, they also break away from their normal work routines. They perform their work with greater imagination, flexibility and a spirit of discovery.

Play and just work go together

Play 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. In its simplest terms, says Dr Brown, “work does not work without play.”

Playfilled /plei’fild/ Adjective: Feeling joy and wholeness from the flow-like state of play

Playfilled challenge:
Think about the work that you do – which tasks do you enjoy the most? Write them down, and keep a note of why you enjoyed them. Chances are those are the things that appeal to your play preferences and therefore bring you the most joy. You could ask your team to do the same. Which patterns emerge in what engages them most deeply? How could you appeal to those preferences?

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