What promotes play at work?

Here are some more yet-to-be-published points from my first study of play in the workplace, and more specifically how play is used to promote creativity in the workplace. Many organizational leaders would like to have a more playful work environment, but cannot think of any other way of doing so than to introduce “casual Friday” or other similarly lame ideas. Oh, and a ping pong table in the company cafeteria isn’t going to do much good either. It is not that these ideas are inherently bad, it is mostly that these ideas of play are the leaders ideas of play. And since one of the defining criteria of play is that it is completely voluntary, then forcing employees to do the boss’s idea of play is not ever going to result in anything other than resistance. So, what is a organizational leader to do if he or she wants to make an effort to boost their organization’s playfulness?

Well, it is actually quite simple. Be playful yourself, frequently demonstrate your playfulness, and give employees explicit and implicit permission to play. This is probably the single most effective way to increase playfulness amongst your employees. It is not about telling people to play in a certain way, but rather about encouraging people to bring out their own playfulness in all its various forms.

In my interviews of organizational consultants who use play in their work, all of them stressed the importance of leaders giving ‘the permission to play,’ as well as leaders setting the example. The permission can be both instructions and direct encouragement of play at work. Last week I happened to spot a colorful sign for employees posted in the kitchen at a cafe at the Copenhagen Airport. Amongst the other points like “give good customer service”, “clean hands” was “have a playful attitude, it makes work more fun.” Another way to give the permission to play, is let the physical context signal that this is a creative and playful workplace. It could be some unusual furniture, funny looking lamps, weird decorations, purposely uncomfortable conference room, childish candy… etc etc. Anything that signals, we take our work seriously, but not ourselves too seriously.

What about the less playful, chronically serious employees who never smile and think work is a severely sober place? There is no way to lure out the playfulness of a non-playful individual, it will never work. Ever. They just don’t have it in them. However a work environment that promotes play by implicit and explicit permission along with organizational leaders setting the example by demonstrating their own playfulness will allow the more playful individual’s playfulness to bloom!