What Happens When We Play At Work?

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “play” for a while. But my fascination with play doesn’t separate it from work. Instead it makes intentional space for it.

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We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing

Playing at work? Hear me out! You see, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “play” for a while.

And I’m not the only one.

In the last several years, Toronto has become home to board game cafés, bars with arcade games, escape rooms, and even archery dodgeball! There’s also Pursuit OCR, an indoor playground for adults complete with a ball pit. And in June 2017, Cineplex opened The Rec Room: an entertainment complex with arcade games, VR games, ping pong, and pool tables.

All these places are great for de-stressing after a long work day, or unwinding with friends on the weekend. But my fascination with play doesn’t separate it from work. Instead it makes intentional space for it.

I was first piqued by the idea of work and play after I read Austin Kleon’s book for creatives, Steal Like An Artist. Kleon wrote a chapter called “Use Your Hands” and it starts with quote from his favourite cartoonist, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.”

Kleon encourages creatives to set up two work-spaces: one digital and one analog. Nothing electronic is allowed in the analog work-space, so instead it’s occupied with sticky notes, markers, pens and index cards. You could even have a tub of Play-Doh there. When we run into roadblocks in the digital work-space or we need to generate ideas, we can turn to the analog work-space to get our bodies and minds moving.

Kleon advocates the importance of incorporating our bodies into our work because the best work should feel like play.

“We tend to compartmentalize our lives to create a sense of balance. Work means boring, mind-numbing tasks. Play equates to the spare time we have to watch a movie. Exercise is defined by running on a treadmill. But work and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, they can work together to help you achieve a breakthrough.” – Melissa Chu

I find this intriguing.

I’d argue that creativity is a balance of working, learning, and playing. And guess what? The balance between work, learning and play happens every day in classrooms around the world.

Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, explains why play is so valuable in the classroom. He says, “If you’re just trying to get people to learn things, [then] formulas, facts, lectures, and tests are a great way to do it. If you’re trying to get people to think creatively and respond to situations that you can’t anticipate, then play is much better.”

So if we balance work, learning, and play at school, why can’t we do it in the workplace? What happens when we play at work?

Here’s an answer: Google. Amazon. Facebook. These innovative organizations hire and retain the best creative talent – and yes, having ping-pong and foosball tables may have something to do with it. It’s one of the reasons why Johnson thinks these companies are successful.

He explains, “They’ve created an environment where the mind is constantly at play, even if it’s doing serious work…When we play, we are opening ourselves up to experiences that are going to surprise us. The fun of play, particularly playing games, is developing resilient, adaptive strategies to respond to unpredictable events.

If I was an employer, I’d want to hire and retain resilient, adaptive and creative employees, wouldn’t you?

“Creative results often stem from creative processes.” – Melissa Chu

But I’m just an employee. And while creativity is one of my core values, I don’t think suggesting a hockey table for the office will go over well.

And yet, I strive to embrace playfulness in my communications work. I’m excited at the possibilities that await in the intersection of work, learning, and play. So how do I introduce play at work, or at least a reminder to be curious, take risks, and embrace challenges?

I buy a box of Legos from Wal-Mart.

Earlier this year, I watched a documentary about The Lego Group, the secretive, innovative, family-owned company behind the colorful brick toys. At The Lego Group headquarters, you’ll find little bowls of Lego bricks around their open-space offices. These bowls encourage Lego employees to take a break (#selfcare), spend time with the product, and to engage and innovate with their colleagues. 

That’s why on my desk at work, between my two computer screens, sits a little cup of Lego. When I’m stressed or strategizing, I start playing with some of the pieces. It’s my own way of taking a break from my digital work-space (my computer screen) and spending time in an analog work-space.

Gray mug of Lego that I keep on my desk at work

My little cup of Lego reminds me of three things:

1. The best way to get my mind moving is to get my body moving.

2. Practice self-care at work instead of just after work.

3. The possibilities that await when I let my inner 9 year-old out to work AND play.

More on play:

Why Ambition is Overrated When it Comes to Innovation (Beth Comstock’s interview with Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World) https://heleo.com/conversation-why-ambition-is-overrated-when-it-comes-to-innovation/14588/

Want to Be Creative? Stop Being So Serious https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/25687-want-to-be-creative-stop-being-so-serious

Core Values of The Lego Group: https://www.lego.com/en-us/aboutus/lego-group/the_lego_brand

WATCH: Beyond the Brick: A Lego Documentary

WATCH: Lucy Kellaway tours the Lego Office (at 9:07 you can see a bowl of bricks on a table)

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