Playing at work

Even though ‘playing at work’ seems to be an oxymoron, more than a dichotomy, play and work are two parts of a continuum. Research suggests that play is an important driver for motivation and productivity in the workplace; hence, it has the potential to thrive organisational development having a deep impact upon job satisfaction, creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and employees’ engagement and wellbeing.

Play allows us to step on into an alternate reality, where the ‘ordinary world’ becomes ‘extraordinary’, ranging from simpler to highly developed forms and expressions. As Huizinga (1949) pointed out in “Homo Ludens”, in its higher forms, play is a social manifestation, a cultural phenomenon which poses a significant function, providing an opportunity to break habitual doing and thinking immersed within a space where we are different and do things differently, outside the ordinary world which is temporarily abolished.

Following Huizinga’s theory, play is characterised as:

a) A voluntary activity: We cannot be forced to play, therefore is freely engaged. It marks itself off from the course of natural processes, i.e., play can be deferred or suspended at any time.

b) It is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life: Through play, we step out of real life and we immerse into a temporary and ‘extraordinary’ world.

c) It is secluded and limited by its own time and place: Play has a beginning and an end, containing its own course and meaning. It has its own boundaries framed in time and space. It occurs within a playground, a temporary world where an absolute and peculiar order reigns.

d) It has its own rules: These rules determine what ‘holds’ the temporary world. If these are transgressed the play-ground collapses, therefore requires an absolute and supreme order. Deviations spoil the playful experience.

e) It is safe: Play is risk-free, allowing people to experiment and explore outside rigid and hard structures; therefore, it is enchanting, captivating and highly immersive.

Literature shows that play manifests in the workplace in two main shapes: as a form of engagement with work or as a form of diversion from it. As engagement, play facilitates creativity, cognitive processes, task motivation, and fosters learning, minimising its potential negatives consequences (e.g. frustration and blockage), providing a safe space which stimulates risk-taking and learning from errors nourishing divergent thinking and transformation abilities.

Of course, work can never be pure play, organisations need to achieve goals and fulfil commitments (e.g. engage more clients, expansion, growth, diversification, fulfil contracts, etc.); therefore, when people play in the workplace the activity becomes ‘serious play‘. This means that we engage in playful behaviours to achieve formal outcomes within the organisational context. Playing at work influences the social relations within the organisation helping to create better and stronger bonds amongst teams and individuals, which increases the willingness to engage in creative activities and endeavours.

Do you think that play is an effective alternative to bring new opportunities for your organisation to grow? I do, playing at work is an exciting option to develop new ideas and get deep and meaningful insights about your organisation and its individuals. When we play, time runs faster and we lose ourselves in the playground, a powerful indicator that we are not just working, but also having fun. In this sense, my experience with Lego® Serious Play® has shown me the potential of play in organisational and educational contexts, a divergent perspective to thrive and grow new knowledge, bring ideation and nurture creativity.

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