The Art And Science of Play At Work

Image of orchestra playing to illustrate the metaphor of play in a professional environment

Play is not something only associated with small children or playful adults. Play is a much broader term, even though when it’s used people immediately tend to think of games and leisure time. Most people don’t think of play as an art and most probably don’t think of the science of play at work.

You do play a game, true.  But you also play music, you play sports and you go to the theatre to see a play. When you see something beautiful and harmonious you describe it as a play of colours, like the northern lights.  Or when words touch you it’s described as a play of words.  Play is an art grounded firmly in science, with more and more research becoming available to shed light on this much-ignored topic.

Play, in its essence, relates to movement and collaboration.  Harmonious movement.  Movement where different, complementary parts come together in a beautiful dance.  It’s about the inter-connectedness and integration of separate parts to makes something more beautiful than what can be done on your own.

What does optimal organizations and play have in common?

Years ago, while searching for a means towards happiness in the workplace, I read words that struck a chord deep inside.

“It is the age of the choir, not the solo artist.”

In the recent past, a single person – or solo artist – is often behind a successful organization.  Apple is associated with Steve Jobs.  Microsoft with Bill Gates. The Virgin brand with Richard Branson.  It was the person behind the organization that made it a success.  The people within the organization were spokes in the wheel of a much bigger engine controlled and envisioned by this one person.

Although I don’t foresee individual fame subsiding soon, I do believe that organizational success no longer relies on one person.  For an organization to succeed in our current complex and volatile economic environment, you need a choir, not just one solo artist.  An optimal organization balances financial profit, operational efficiency, employee happiness and market share. It is not a one or the other, but a constant aim to maintain equilibrium between all these factors that contributes to a company’s success.  It’s an art, grounded firmly in science.  I see an optimal organization as a play of talent.

An optimal organization is one where there is harmony and collaboration.  A whole, living organism as Frederic Laloux describes it in his book Reinventing Organizations.

An optimal organization is an organization that understands the science and art of play.

Diving deeper into the science of play

While play is an art that comes naturally to most children, the science behind it is still very much unexplored.  Dr Stuart Brown, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, is one of the few individuals who dedicated his life to studying play after he discovered a lack of play as constant factor identified in a range of murder cases.  He also found that engineers who had a richer play history were better problem solvers, and thus engineers, than peers who played less as a child.  The link between success – both professionally and in life – and play was undeniable.

Play, it turns out, is an important – or rather crucial – part of brain development.  Knowing what we didn’t know growing up – namely that the brain continues to grow beyond childhood – it thus makes sense to spend time looking at the benefits of play.

Dr Brown classified seven types of play, each contributing to a different aspect of social and cognitive development. Below is a short summary of these main play types and how to use it in the workplace as a productivity and engagement tool.

Different play types and how to use them at work

1. Attunement play

Attunement play is the most basic building block of play. Before any other form of play can happen, players need to tune into each other, establishing an emotional connection.  Only when people are in tune with each other and have a mutual goal does play become fun and productive.

This emotional connection between people is important in forming new neural pathways and consequently brain development.  Although the research on attunement play was mostly done on infant and mother – when brain development is at its most crucial – brain development never – or rather should never – stop.  It is when you stop learning and developing new neural pathways that life starts becoming boring and mundane.

If you feel stuck in the rat race running between work and home and back again just to wake up one day realizing the year is gone without any substantial change in your life, it’s an indication that you are no longer practising your mind muscles.

It’s time to practise the art and science of play.

Applying attunement play in the workplace

Before a band performs on stage, they need to tune their instruments.  Within an organization, attunement is as an important part for optimal productivity.  The foundation of productive play at work lies in attunement play.  It’s your first step towards a more playful – and creative – workplace.

Attunement play doesn’t look very playful from the outside though.   Attunement play is first and foremost about team alignment in a professional setting.  It is about determining each team member’s personality, player type (more about this topic in a later post), strengths and weaknesses and putting each person in their right role and place.

Team alignment is about levelling out the workflow to reduce bottlenecks and clearly define boundaries and knowledge domains to aid faster and more efficient decision making.

Attunement play mostly takes the form of mirroring in the workplace to bring out each persons’ play personality.  Your primary goal is to (very subtly) bring out the playfulness in each person by looking for what lights them up and what makes them unique.

2. Body and movement play

Without movement, there is no music.  Movement leads to flow and flow results in hyper-productive teams.

Body and movement play, the second type of play, helps children develop a spatial understanding of how they relate to the world.  It also teaches the basics of physics such as gravity.  This type of play is the primary characteristic of fun.  It includes dance, sport and more kinesthetic games like hide-and-seek.

The origin of the word play in fact comes from the old English plegan, plegian which means to move rapidly.  While play relates to dance and movement, games relate more to structure and rules.

If you had to choose only one playful activity to include at work, make it movement.  Movement is important for far more reasons than I can list in this post, the most essential being that movement is what allows for energy within the body to flow. This movement of energy, in turn, means access to new ideas and old memories which allows for more creative problem-solving.

Applying movement play in the workplace

Although this is by far the most tangible aspect of play to implement in the workplace, there are some challenges due to social conditioning and workplace design.

Most physical workspaces are not designed for collaboration (and play).  They are designed for workers to sit still and graft quietly.  I’m surprised how few people seem to notice the link between a lack of communication and collaboration in the workplace and the physical design of the space.

Re-arrange desks to have teams physically sit together.  Leave space to move around and use light and mobile furniture.  Have plenty of space to write on (like whiteboards or glass windows) and add colour where possible.  Make it messy.  When it’s too perfect no-one will want to contribute.

Another barrier to implementing movement play relates to our schooling system.  From a young age, we learn that ‘good’ children sit down quietly behind a desk and listen to what the teacher (or boss) says.  Movement is frequently punished.  In fact, many parents medicate their children to make them more docile.

Trying to get people to move in the workplace requires re-modelling these old beliefs.  Start small by implementing stand-up meetings – shorter meetings with a physical board.  Next, invite the team to contribute information by moving or writing something on the whiteboard. Finally, you’re ready for more playful activities such as bodystorming or place storming.

The key to implementing movement play is flexibility and agility.  Rather than a picture-perfect board with beautifully pre-printed (and static) headings, have handwritten notes that you can easily erase or change.  If you don’t have a physical board and rely on Trello and Jira alone, consider investing in a moveable whiteboard.  A physical board improves collaboration and productivity. In fact, the first rule of productivity is to visualize the work.

3. Object play

When you understand the musical instrument you play technically, you are better able to control it.  Object play, the next type of play, is essentially about understanding how something works.  It is a tool to help develop problem-solving skills by physically touching and exploring an object.

In his research, Dr Brown discovered that engineers who had a rich play environment while young were better engineers than those who were more play deprived. The engineers with a richer play history could solve problems better and think more creatively than their play-deprived peers.

I strongly believe that words don’t teach.  Language is simply too limiting to express the full context and complexity of any single thought.

We learn better by doing.  Object play is essentially figuring out how things work by touch.

Applying object play in the work environment

By far the most explored area of productive play is that of object play.  Using Lego as modelling or abstraction tool is one example of object play at work. Most of the ‘agile’ games are examples of object play.  Each ‘game’ demonstrates an idea in a less serious environment where it is safe to take risks and explore.

Object play can also take the form of a hackathon or a coding dojo, where there is no ‘game’ as an object of play but rather work. It is also my preferred tool for productive play as it is directly linked back to work.  A hackathon is the Olympic games of knowledge work.

A hackathon is a voluntary showcase of talent where people get to show what they can do in a limited time. Finally, a hackathon usually doesn’t have the real-world impact compared to actual work, adding to its playfulness.

Introduce yearly or quarterly hackathons at work as a means to recognize talent and innovate.  Or allocate the concept of 20% hack time where each person can work on a personal project for an allocated time.

4. Social play

Social play is one of the most important, and complex, types of play when it comes to relationships.  It is helpful as a tool to develop interpersonal skills.  Social play teaches communication, negotiation and other social skills that create stronger teams at work.

Any form of team sport inherently integrates social play as part of it. Whenever there is a single goal requiring collaboration from different skill sets to achieve this goal, social play is at work.  It relates to the relationship between different people and instruments.  Often, this is the differentiator between an average team and a great one.

Applying social play in the workplace

Social play naturally happens when a team of people work on the same project.  However, that doesn’t make it playful.   To make a project feel more playful, it’s crucial to have a clear goal (or win-condition as it is called in games).  Each team member also needs to be clear on their role within the team and how their contribution is needed for the team to succeed.  It helps to raise awareness of different communication styles and other personality differences between team members.  It’s not enough to merely sit together.  It becomes play only when you have interdependence and mutual respect.

One of my favourite tools to use is role-play.  If you’ve ever heard of mob programming or mob testing, add a playful spin by assigning personalities and adding random events to create a more immersive role-play.  Rather than focusing on the functional perspective of the system when developing or testing a system, focus on the user perspective.  If you’re testing a property rental application, add some personality by assigning snobbish agent, demanding owner and angry tenant.

A system works well if used as intended. Few users, however, use a system in the perfect way.  In the real world, life happens.  You’re busy, so you miss an obvious instruction or can’t find what you’re looking for fast enough.  Or you’re demanding, so you want more than what is reasonably available.  You’re angry, so you hit the button a few more times than what is necessary.  Make it more real by becoming the user through role-play rather than simply thinking about them.

5. Creative play

The last three types of play relates to creativity, with pretend play important to understand how the child fits into the world, narrative story helping them understand others and their relationship to others, and creative play crucial for developing new ideas and improvement.

Creative play is most useful for organizations looking for innovation or continuous improvement.  These types of play require a strong foundation of trust and vulnerability.  I consider it an advanced and more specialized type of play.

Applying creative play in the workplace

Most people don’t feel comfortable with creative play without adequate preparation. People are usually more comfortable focusing on reality and what is than fantasy and what could be.

Using story cubes and improv games – short, fun activities contrary to what logic tells you –  is a great way to prime players for more creative play.  A more subtle form of applying creative play is the use of exaggeration and positive focus.  Always say yes and to add to another’s suggestion rather than pointing out the possible risks or failures.

A focused design sprint is another playful and structured way to innovate.  Adding playful design will further enhance the experience already more playful than traditional work methods.

Benefits of play

The benefits of play are numerous.  From my personal experience, an increase in productivity and employee engagement are the two most important benefits.  Dr Brown further suggests that the science of play sets the stage for cooperative socialization, establishing trust and empathy, and as a tool to understand fairness and judgement.

For any organization struggling with employee engagement or productivity, play is an extremely valuable tool not to be taken lightly.  Which leaves us with only one thing to do.

Let’s play.

 

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

 

Kate Dames
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.
Kate Dames

@funficient

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Creating happy, whole, post-agile workplaces with technology, yoga and play.
@pdiscoveryuk It's not fun if you break the rules. I did consider to google it but I'm a gamer, not a cheater. 😁Th… https://t.co/TIfG5Zv2SY - 5 hours ago
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