Is play the new work?

Cathy Brown and Maranda Ridgway explore the role of playfulness in alternative ways of working

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While play and work may appear contradictory, they actually have many synergies, and playfulness is growing in prominence within today's progressive workplaces.

Embracing play to realise benefits for employees and employers is not new. We've known the benefits of play from child development, where play has been shown to expand physical and mental ability. We know that humour, playfulness, laughter, and joy are essential to using our brains entirely. However, what is new is transferring this insight into the world of work. While the interest in play at work is growing, there is still a lot to learn. Playing has been central to, and synonymous with, specific industries such as tech and creative, but is the time now suitable for organisations in other sectors to consider how play may be embedded in their workplace? We argue that as the war for talent is once again gaining traction, organisations need to think creatively about how to attract and retain people.

Fostering play at work

What do we mean by play? While there are many definitions of play, it can be defined as activities that are enjoyable, push the boundaries, are freely chosen, encourage social interaction and draw upon our imagination. Within organisations, play can take the form of meetings, parties, activities, silliness and games. It can be both scheduled and unscheduled, formal and informal. The uptake of play can vary from influencing leaders' traits and behaviours to influencing organisational cultures. Importantly, knowing how to play can be learnt; it can be nurtured through learning and experience.

Fostering play at work isn't a fringe activity adopted by peripheral institutions. Indeed, it is an approach adopted by many progressive organisations worldwide, including LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Lego, IBM and Sony. Unsurprisingly, such organisations often feature on 'best places to work' lists. Moreover, words such as humour and fun repeatedly feature as company values, demonstrating that play is firmly embedded within the company culture. 

Payoffs for playing

Embracing play within our work has many benefits for us. It can increase our levels of stimulation and motivation; it can help us lift our mood and recharge. Additionally, it can help us in our relationships with others by helping to reduce levels of conflict, anger and hostility. At the individual level, play can help instil a sense of meaningfulness and purpose at work, two factors that employees have proactively sought as a result of the pandemic. 

Organisations see many benefits as well. In addition to encouraging more significant levels of engagement and empowerment, playing at work can help foster particular capabilities. For example, play can help to increase creativity, decision-making in the face of uncertainty and greater mental flexibility. Thus, play can impact teamwork, social bonding and climate, leading to enhanced morale, job satisfaction and job performance.

Blurring of boundaries

The pandemic caused a significant blurring of lines between home and work; similarly, work and play boundaries are becoming more fluid. As we return to formal workplaces, questions are raised about how these boundaries will be navigated. Perhaps overlap can be beneficial rather than moving towards distinguishing between the pre-pandemic personal and professional. This potential for overlap leads us to reflect upon how we can cultivate and manage the blurring of boundaries within our organisation and HR practice. What will we need to release? What will we need to embrace?

Alternative ways of working

Changes in the socio-economic landscape and demographics (such as an ageing workforce) have amplified the need for individuals and organisations to consider alternative ways of working. As Generation Z enter the workplace, it is apparent that their expectations are unlike previous generations. Their career will be value-based, flexibility will be the norm, and it is reasonable to expect cultures that promote playfulness to be essential to attract future talent.  

So how can playfulness be fostered at work? First, there is no need to immediately remodel the workplace to feature a multitude of gaming consoles, basketball courts or pool tables. Instead, playfulness can be encouraged through providing space for experimentation, finding fun in the monotony (e.g., adding a silly competitive element), sharing jokes and leading by example – employees are more likely to embrace and feel safe being playful if they see their leaders doing so.

Dr Maranda Ridgway is a senior lecturer in human resources management at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, and Dr Cathy Brown is a chartered occupational psychologist at Evolve Consulting Services