How to have fun at work: when play becomes productive

neon sign with words work & play

Consciously making time to play is something that we tend to leave at the door of childhood. After all, we grow up, leaving the technicolour memories of sandcastles, climbing frames and paint pots behind us. We enter the black-and-white world of spreadsheets and taxes with a weary sigh. You must have heard the saying, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, but how can you introduce play at work when faced with the task list of a modern employee?

After all, ‘fun’ and ‘work’ aren’t two words you often hear in the same sentence.But, when it comes to fun, we shouldn’t separate work and life : it doesn’t have to be boring vs fun, or tired vs energetic.  So how can we create an environment that promotes fun at work? Enter the magnificent world of play.

Play is universal. We see it across cultures and across history. Archaeologists are finding out more and more about how play looked in our ancient history – in fact, researchers recently discovered a 4,000 year old board game similar to backgammon. And, in today’s world, play for adults is on the rise. People in their twenties, thirties and forties have, for the first time, overtaken children as the primary consumer demographic of video games. Escape rooms are now the UK’s most sought after attraction, and the host of an online pub quiz recently earned an MBE for his services to the UK during lockdown. We’re turning to play to help us get through this seismic change in how we live – so, surely it can help us at work too.Â

Play is Everywhere

More and more companies are starting to wake up to the importance of play at work and its many benefits. Take a look at Google’s offices: basketball courts, mini-golf and scooters are the more obvious forms of play, but there’s also lots of playful imagery like giant binoculars and a meeting room decorated like a tunnel. Imagine the feelings this sort of imagery would incite – the excitement, the novelty, and the fun – and how those feelings could impact employee motivation, productivity and creativity.

It follows that having fun at work doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a game. In everyday life, you might already have more forms of play than you realise. Whilst some people might enjoy more structured games like a 5-a-side football match, perhaps instead mobile phone games are your go-to on long train journeys. You might like to do the crossword in the Sunday papers, or play peek-a-boo with your toddler. Whatever play looks like for you, it’s important that we don’t categorise it as something that only ever happens in stand-alone episodes. Leading researcher into play, Dave Neale, explains that it can also be an interaction. It can be simply having a playful mindset or approach to something, and this is where we can really start to see how this can be used to promote fun at work.

The benefits of creating fun at work

Researchers are finding more and more benefits that are associated with fun at work. When we introduce play in to the workplace we can:

Reduce stress

Several studies (including Magnuson & Barnett and Russoniello & O’Brien ) have demonstrated that play reduces cortisol and releases endorphins, helping us to manage the stresses of everyday life. If this is a case, then finding opportunities to create fun at work could form a sizeable part of wellbeing strategies going forwards.

Build relationships

Games where we share objectives with our colleagues (or even those with a friendly bit of competition!) are a great way of socialising, and even simply joking with each other can help to build rapport. We know that employees are ten times more likely to stay in their job for friendships than a pay rise, which means that this benefit of play could have wider implications in terms of retention.

Stimulates creativity

Over time, scientists have discovered that playfulness can enhance creative thinking. For example, West et al conducted a study into meetings at work, comparing those with play cues (such as simple games or childhood sweets) and those without. They found that the meetings held in a play-cued condition had a significant increase in productivity, playfulness and creativity – this could be great news for our approach to innovation and problem-solving.

Encourages laughter

It’s inevitable that having fun at work leads to laughter (even when the joke is terrible!), and laughter is itself proving to have a whole host of benefits on our health, wellbeing, and at work. In fact, a study by Oswald et al found that laughing boosted the productivity of their participants by up to 12%!

Improves productivity

Perhaps the biggest concern we might have around making time to have fun at work is that it takes time away from work and our ever-growing to-do list. However, research have shown that incorporating playfulness can actually have the opposite effect, in one study increasing productivity by 20%.

The list continues, and it’s clear that these benefits have the potential to have an enormous impact on our working lives. But what about the wonderful world of learning and development? Can we reap the rewards of play too?

We all know that as children, we learn through having fun and playing without even trying. Our early years are filled with exploration, discovery and trial-and-error as our brains develop at a rapid rate. But, although we have an overwhelming wealth of evidence supporting learning through play for children, the field of research into the importance of fun in Learning and development hasn’t quite caught up yet. Nevertheless, a doctoral study  found that play and playfulness in the higher education and adult classroom led to increases in engagement, retention and understanding. And, perhaps most significantly, it created a learning environment that felt safe and encouraged risk taking. This could have real implications for creating psychological safety, which is so important in the world of virtual training.

More Playful Approach

So, let’s position ourselves ahead of the curve and champion this brave new world of play at work. Let’s embrace an approach towards our working lives that promotes fun, and let’s use this to support our wellbeing, stimulate our imagination and engage learners. If you would like some advice on how to bring play into your learning and development, get in touch, we’d love to help!

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