Seven Ways to Bring Play to Work
By Leif Hansen '93 | Photo by Luke Rutan
1. Re-examine your assumptions and beliefs about work and play.
Talk with co-workers or schedule a staff meeting for discussion of how to make work more enjoyable, creative, and playful. Consider questions like these:
- When you hear the word “play,” what comes to mind?
- Is play the opposite of work?
- If not, what is the opposite or work … or play?
- Is it possible that more playfulness could lead to more productivity?
- Does enjoying work more equate to not working as hard?
Choose to really bring transformation, or “playformation,” to your workplace.
2. Uncover your core passions and connect them to your organization's mission and values.
What activities, interests, and values help you feel alive every time you participate in them or talk about them? It's helpful to look back over your life for themes that have persisted since youth. When coaching clients, I call this process “finding the golden thread of our lives.”
Something — hopefully more than just the need for money — led you into doing this work. How are those core passions being expressed in your workplace? And if they're not being expressed enough, how can you find creative ways, or the support you need (friend, co-worker, manager, coach), to make it more fulfilling?
3. Schedule at least one, if not a few, “non-screen” times during your day.
I've noticed that when I've been sitting in front of a screen for long periods, I become unaware of my feelings. It's a bit unnerving as a kind of zombie-like numbness sets in.
Turn off your computer, leave your cell at your desk, stand up and try letting your body or heart lead things for a while. Go for a walk alone or with a co-worker. Play a game. Perhaps scream or sing (keep a pillow handy nearby if necessary to muffle the volume.) Talk face-to-face with a co-worker. You might be surprised to find that the delightful five-minute conversation actually saved you sending and reading several emails.
Do anything that engages you as a full person — body, heart, mind, and spirit.
4. Schedule regular daily or weekly play time with your co-workers.
This could be some board games, foosball in the office, a team sport — or it could be more social games with direct application to increasing creative flow. Here are two simple activities I might use with groups and that would be relatively easy for anyone to facilitate.
“Sound Ball.” A classic, simple, fun, energizing, and right-brain-expanding activity. The silliness of the game helps people to loosen up and not fear making mistakes or looking foolish — everyone looks silly, and mistakes are even encouraged.
- Have the group stand in a circle. The first person “passes” an improvised sound (encourage it to be the first sound that comes to mind) to her right. That person “catches” the sound by repeating it, and then he passes a new sound to the next person. And so on and so on.
- You can evolve the game in a variety of ways. Pass the sound anywhere in the circle; include a facial expression with the sound; include a “shape” (of a certain weight, size, or texture) for the sound; have the whole group repeat the sound, etc.
“Good News / Bad News.” This is a great activity for demonstrating the foundational improv principle of “Yes, And” as well as demonstrating how life tends to shift and transform.
Gather the group in a circle, ideally divisible by three, as each person will get a chance to start the story differently each time. Explain that you will give an opening to a story, something like "Lisa went to the beach."
- The first person in the circle will then continue the story with one to three lines, like "The bad news is … it started to rain."
- The next person starts their sentence, "The good news is … there was a cozy café she'd been wanting to visit right next to the beach."
- The third person will further the plot of the story by starting their sentence with "And so ... she settled in for the afternoon and wrote the first chapter of her book."
The three-part cycle continues with "The bad news is …” “The good news is …” “And so …” Story continues until they have all had at least one turn, possibly two to three turns, depending on your time and how much they are enjoying the exercise.
Make sure to debrief after activities by asking people what they noticed about the process and about their reactions.
5. Create a comfortable play-space or lounge in your workplace.
While many new companies, particularly in the tech industry, include video game consoles in their social spaces, consider some alternatives. Yes, video games can be a fun way to play together occasionally, but when screens are around, we tend to turn away from each other as well as away from our bodies and creative imaginations.
Consider instead filling your new space with more physical games, art supplies, comfortable furniture to encourage socialization, white boards for playful ideation, board games that encourage creativity and discussion, etc. Get creative and let as many staff as possible help create the space.
6. Bring more of your personal, creative, playful life into the workplace.
The pressure to conform to a “professional image” often brings a spirit that is antithetical to play. While every organization has different policies, try pushing the edges to integrate more of your and others’ authentic selves into the workplace.
Bring some of your hobbies to your desk or new play-space. Play guitar during lunch breaks. Dress more creatively and authentically. Trust is the heart of all good business relationships, and authenticity helps cultivate that trust.
Some other playful and creative ideas to consider:
- Leave secret notes and gifts around the office.
- Play a funny and non-harmful prank on a co-worker.
- Coordinate an improvised “flash mob” musical for unsuspecting staff or clients.
- Make a silly or competitive game out of your current sales calls.
Trust your inner “coyote”– he'll show you the way.
7. Do some more reading and research on this subject.
Here are three great books I'd recommend:
- For personal playful growth, I love (and have taught classes on) Patricia Ryan Madson's Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up.
- For the workplace try Pamela Meyer's From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement.
- Lastly, one of my favorite business books, which describes six key value-shifts needed for success in our era, is one written by Daniel Pink — A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
Leif Hansen is the founder and CEO of Spark Interaction. A nationally recognized group facilitator, trainer, and teacher, his workshops have been featured on a variety of media including NBC's Today Show, PBS Online and The Los Angeles Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or sparkinteraction.com/contact for a free e-book with tips for engaging groups, as well as more activities.