How to boost productivity

When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol, which is like fuel to a fire that helps you get away from danger.  The problem in today’s working environment, though, is that we are exposed to unnaturally high levels of cortisol for extended periods of time. These  rising levels of stress eventually cause total burn-out, rendering your employee not able to work at all.  Here are some recent numbers as reported in the Labour Force Survey on the impact of stress at work.

11.7 million

The number of working days lost in the past year due to stress in the UK alone, with the rest of the world not much better.  Stress is also the cause for nearly half of all working days lost due to ill health.

It is in the best interest of the employer and the employee to alleviate, not manage, stress in the workplace.  Yet, a lot of workplaces view any activity not directly related to productivity, as a form of waste.  One of these “wasteful” activities includes play.

Play, however, is far from waste. More and more scientific proof is becoming available on the benefits of a more playful environment at work.  Play, it turns out, is a tool for innovation and productivity, not waste.  Some of the benefits of play include a more relaxed, creative and flexible workforce. This directly increases the productivity of workers, and thus the profitability of the organization.

According to studies, an enriched, or more playful, environment at work increases the level of activity in the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain where the highest cognitive processing takes place.  The more playful and relaxing the work environment, the better people are able to make decisions solve problems.

Productive play is far from child’s play

However, having studied and experimented with the use of games and gamification in education and work myself, I have empathy with those employers discarding play as a waste of time.  Strengthened further with predictions by Gartner who accurately predicted in 2012 that 80% of gamified projects would have failed in 2014.  They did.

The reason for this failure, however, was due to poor design, not the mechanics of play itself.  It failed because most people don’t understand the rules of play and how to productively play as a means to augment the work environment.

Most people are good at games, being addicted to Candy Crush, Farmville, World of Warcraft or Minecraft. Yet, there is a big difference between playing games for fun, and using it as a relaxation tool at work with the goal to increase productivity, engagement, and innovation.  Playing Solitaire for a few minutes at work to relieve stress is a temporary cure to a much bigger problem.  It is merely escaping the reality of the problem rather than address the root cause.

To resolve the root of the problem, the work environment itself needs to become more relaxing and playful.   In order to do that, it is important that the employer understands how to play productively.

How to play productively

Years of research in the fields of psychology, gamification, and game design, each day I’m learning how to be better at productive play.  Here are 5 guidelines.

1. Know your players

Different people enjoy different things, which is why incorporating Points, Badges, and Leaderboards alone is generally not a great solution to improve team morale.  It mainly motivates one of four player types, making up on average only about 10% of your total workforce.  In order to succeed at gamification at work, you need to aim to motivate much more than 10% of your employees.  The first step is to understand what motivates your players.

There are different models available that define player types, with Bartle’s taxonomy of player types probably the most accepted.  He classified four main types of players, of which socializers make up approximately 80% of all players, followed by 10% achievers (highly motivated by leaderboards and badges), 10% explorers and finally less than 1% killers, or disruptors. Which explains why Facebook and Farmville continue to be so successful.  We love to connect and socialize (read more on this topic here).

Knowing what motivates your workforce, and where they fall in this classification of player types, will help you focus your efforts more productively when designing a more playful work environment.  Ideally, however, try to cater for all types of your design.

2. Lead by example

I’ve seen many companies with a dedicated play area at work, deserted and empty with no one making use of the facility.  I’ve also heard many managers complain that they’ve spent all the money, but no-one uses it. However, it’s not the play area at fault or the employee’s unwillingness to use it.  Putting a pinball machine in the corner is not enough to create a playful environment.

People do what you do, not what you say.

Show them that it is acceptable to play, by engaging in the playful facilities yourself as a leader and plan for some play-time.  If the workload is too high, the employees are not going to use it, which brings me to the next guideline.

3. Be clear about the rules of the game

It is very easy for play at work to get out of hand, which is why it is of utmost importance to clearly define the rules of play.

All games have rules – very clear ones. No ambiguity, no passive aggressive non-compliance.  If everyone doesn’t agree on the rules of the game, there is no play.  When everyone plays by their own rules, there is anarchy, which is why it is so easy for play to get out of hand.

Be very clear, and very specific about the rules of play.  Google has dedicated 20% hack days, Salesforce dedicates 1% of their resources to charity.  Define a clear set of rules as to what is acceptable and what not, and put these rules or team agreement up where everyone can see it.

4. Understand the different kinds of fun

Understanding your players are important, as is what fun looks like.  Yet, the concept of fun can evolve into a Wikipedia of its own, with literally millions of things that people consider fun.  To simplify this extensive list, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten elements of fun.

When you understand what makes something more fun, making work more fun suddenly becomes easier.

The good news is that fun in a work environment includes  movement, learning, and collaboration.  Meaningful fun directly results in a more productive work environment.

5. The power of visualization

If your employer is however still against a more playful work environment, here is a secret, yet powerful tool which only requires the power of your mind.

When under extreme stress, simply take a few moments and think back to a time when you were playing or having fun.  Whether you were a toddler discovering the miracle of blowing bubbles for the first time, or enjoyed pretending to be a dolphin as I did, simply replay this image in your mind when you are stressed, and see how you feel afterward.

If you’re not able to remember playful times when you are very stressed, try looking at some photos of an event or trip with good friends or family.  If you keep interrupting your thinking patterns with these happy thoughts when in a very stressful environment, eventually, you’ll start diminishing the effect of the stress in your body.


Play at work, if implemented correctly,  is a powerful tool to increase employee morale and boost productivity.  However, it is important to know your players, define the rules of play, understand what fun is, and make it a priority regardless of your environment around you.


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With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.