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How to Harness the Power of Play to Transform your Work Culture

How to Harness the Power of Play to Transform your Work Culture

Most people think of their lives as being split into two distinct parts: work and free time. But what if that distinction didn’t exist? What if going to work was so enjoyable that people actually looked forward to being there? It may sound radical but a growing number of forward-thinking businesses and organizations are trying to help their employees have more fun at work.

Happy employees work harder

The trendy startup agency with table football and pinball in the breakout zone, where hipster geeks chill amidst office dogs and beanbag chairs, may have become a modern cliché, but there is wisdom behind the nurturing of this kind of work culture. Numerous studies suggest that when people are enjoying their jobs they are more efficient. And it may be cynical, but if the only motivation driving some profit-focused companies to invest properly in the well-being of their staff is to increase productivity, then that’s better than nothing. Love ’em or hate ’em, Google has invested huge amounts into employee happiness, and profits have increased as a result.

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    A recent study carried out at the University of Warwick reveals that employee satisfaction and productivity are unquestionably linked:

    We have shown that happier subjects are more productive, the same pattern appears in four different experiments. This research will provide some guidance for management in all kinds of organizations, they should strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.

    Andy Beresford, Managing Director of Home Leisure Direct, an award-winning U.K. games-room specialist, has witnessed a rise in the number of purchases of games such as pinball and table football by U.K. businesses. Andy is passionate about the importance of play in society as a way to increase well-being:

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    It’s something I witness regularly, a group of people begin a game of table football or table tennis, and within minutes boundaries are broken, communication flows and they are having more fun than they could have imagined. This kind of playful set-up at work really helps employees, not only to kick back and release work stress but it also improves colleagues’ relationships and connectivity.

    The dark cult of presenteeism

    The 9-to-5 culture doesn’t really exist anymore. Little by little the boundaries that protect our leisure time are being eroded. From C-suite to junior intern, we see individuals sitting at desks in lit office blocks long past sunset, and many are taking work home on the weekend, too. But this kind of work-life imbalance has a sting in the tail for industry. People are becoming depressed and stress related illness is on the increase. According to a new report by King’s College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science, depression now costs European workplaces the equivalent of $120 billion a year. The greatest economic loss is through absenteeism and lost productivity. In her book ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time’ Brigid Schulte explores how we have forgotten to play because we put too much onus on being productive. It is the work ethic gone crazily off-kilter, with a new and dangerous status attached to productivity. But, contrary to common perceptions, this kind of obsession with “presenteeism” does not result in increased productivity. As Helen Lewis insists in this Guardian article:

    Research shows most people can only do eight hours of quality work a day. After that, they are just desk meat, surreptitiously playing Solitaire in a browser window or daydreaming about dinner.

    But if we can’t go back to the days of being home for supper at 5.30 p.m., what businesses can do is to create leisure time in the working day, by bringing leisure into the work space and encouraging employees to break up their day with allocated periods of creativity, communication, and free play with colleagues.

    Play therapy

    Flow” is the psychological state of being in which a person is stimulated, alert, present, and fully immersed in nothing but the task at hand. In this state, learning and creativity are optimum, time seems to fly, and a person feels totally satisfied. This is the state that is induced in children and adults by playful activity. Engaged in a task where process and pleasure override product and pressure, a person loses a sense of self, or ego, and worry and anxiety are reduced. In other words, play is therapy.

    The benefits of play

    Whether it’s a game of netball or table football, a video game, or a creative activity such as writing or painting, people emerge from this state of flow feeling refreshed and enlivened, and often acquire new insights and cognitive understandings. Play has the potential to make us:

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    1. Less stressed. Play triggers the release of endorphins and helps people to cope better with stress and anxiety. The social interaction of playing with family and friends can also help reduce isolation and depression.
    2. Brainier and more creative. Play challenges the brain and can help prevent memory problems by keeping the brain exercised and stimulated. Learning is accelerated and improved when a task is turned into a game. Play stimulates the imagination and increases problem-solving capacity.
    3. Closer to each other. Shared play brings people closer together, encourages bonding, and helps to resolve conflict. In new relationships, play can be an effective tool for overcoming any awkwardness. Studies show that employees who have friends at work are much happier, and retention rates increase.

    So, if play can transform the things we don’t always enjoy (exercise, work, study) into stimulating, life-enhancing activities, how can play be introduced in the workplace?

    1. Organised fun. It may not be enough to adorn a communal space with a sofa, an office dog, and a pinball machine. Employees need to be given permission to play; it has to be woven into the work culture by good leadership. Designated breaks and organized tournaments and gaming events will encourage people to get involved, and to feel safe enough to play. Most of us are not used to this at work and it may take a bit of practice to inject a sense of playfulness into the workday.
    2. Work events. It is shared experience that bonds people to one another, and studies show that this is increased with laughter and mirth. Throw parties, take the firm ice-skating, play pin the tail on the donkey (who looks like the boss) at Christmas, enjoy a wine tasting, a portrait-painting workshop—anything that will encourage co-workers to get to know each other, let their hair down, and have a laugh.
    3. Make meetings fun. In between the regular meetings, pencil a few meetings in the work calendar where the focus is purely creative and communicative. Introducing mind maps and brainstorming can encourage right-brain activity. Insight and innovation often stem from creativity and daydreaming, and too much pressure and expectation can thwart human potential.

    Towards a new work model

    Appreciative Inquiry, initiated by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, a model for positive and sustainable change within organizations. One of its core principles sums up perfectly the concepts that might drive a new human-centred workplace.

    The positive principle proposes that momentum and sustainable change requires positive affect and social bonding. Sentiments like hope, excitement, inspiration, camaraderie and joy increase creativity, openness to new ideas and people, and cognitive flexibility.

    Instead of dreaming of escape, people might actively choose to spend time in a workplace where play, creativity, social connection, reward, and a sense of fun are woven into the culture.

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    Published on November 12, 2020

    5 Signs You Work in a Toxic Environment (And What To Do)

    5 Signs You Work in a Toxic Environment (And What To Do)

    What’s the most draining, miserable job you’ve ever had? Maybe you had a supervisor with unrealistic demands about your work output and schedule. Or perhaps, you worked under a bullying boss who frequently lost his temper with you and your colleagues, creating a toxic work environment.

    Chances are, though, your terrible job experience was more all-encompassing than a negative experience with just one person. That’s because, in general, toxicity at work breeds an entire culture. Research shows abusive behavior by leaders can and often quickly spread through an entire organization.[1]

    Unfortunately, working in a toxic environment doesn’t just make it miserable to show up to the office (or a Zoom meeting). This type of culture can have lasting negative effects, taking a toll on mental and physical health and even affecting workers’ personal lives and relationships.[2]

    While it’s often all-encompassing, toxic culture isn’t always as blatant or clear-cut as abuse. Some of the evidence is more subtle—but it still warrants concern and action.

    Have a feeling that your workplace is a toxic environment? Here are 5 surefire signs to look for.

    1. People Often Say (or Imply) “That’s Not My Job”

    When I first launched my company, I had a very small team. And back then, we all wore a lot of hats, simply because we had to. My colleagues and I worked tirelessly together to build, troubleshoot, and market our product, and nobody complained (at least most of the time).

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    Because we were all in it together, with the same shared vision in mind, cooperation mattered so much more than job titles. Unfortunately, it’s not always that way.

    In some workplaces, people adhere to their job descriptions to a fault:

    • Need help with an accounting problem? Sorry, that’s not my job.
    • Oh, you spilled your coffee in the break room? Too bad, I’m working.
    • Can’t figure out the new software? Ask IT.

    While everyone has their own skillset—and time is often at a premium—cooperation is important in any workplace. An “it’s not my job” attitude is a sign of a toxic environment because it’s inherently selfish. It implies “I only care about me and what I have to get done” and that people aren’t concerned about the collective good or overall vision.[3] That type of perspective is not only bound to drain individual relationships; it also drains overall morale and productivity.

    2. There’s a Lack of Diversity

    Diversity is a vital part of a healthy work environment. We need the opinions and ideas of people who don’t see the world like us to move ahead. So, when leaders don’t prioritize diversity—or worse, they actively avoid it—I’m always suspicious about their character and values.

    Limiting your workforce to one type of person is bound to prevent organizations from growing healthily. But even if your work environment is diverse in general, the management might prevent diverse individuals from rising to leadership positions, which only misses the point of having a diverse work environment in the first place.

    Look around you. Who’s in leadership at your company? Who gets promotions and rewards most often? If the same type of people gets ahead while other individuals consistently get left behind, you might be working in a toxic environment.

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    However it manifests in your workplace, keep in mind that a lack of diversity is a tell-tale sign that “bias is rampant and the wrong things are valued.”[4]

    3. Feedback Isn’t Allowed

    Just as individual growth hinges on being open to criticism, an organization’s well-being depends on workers’ ability to air their concerns and ideas. If management actively stifles feedback from employees, you’re probably working in a toxic environment.

    But that definitely doesn’t mean nobody will air their feelings. One of the telltale signs of toxic leadership is when employees vent on the sidelines, out of management’s earshot. When I worked in a toxic environment, coworkers would often complain about higher-ups and company policies during work in private chats or after work hours.

    It’s normal to get frustrated at work. That’s just a part of having a job. What isn’t normal is when dissent isn’t a part of or discouraged in the workplace. A workplace culture that suppresses constructive feedback will not be successful in the long run. It’s a sign that leadership isn’t open to new ideas, and that they’re more concerned about their own well-being than the health of the organization as a whole.

    4. Quantifiable Measures Take Priority

    Sales numbers, timelines, bottom lines—these metrics are, of course, important signs of how things are going in any business. But great leaders know that true success isn’t always measurable or quantifiable. More meaningful factors like workplace satisfaction, teamwork, and personal growth all contribute to and sustain these metrics.

    Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and they shouldn’t be the only concern. Measure-taking should always take a backseat to meaning-making—working together to contribute to a vision that improves people’s lives. If your workplace zones in on quantifiable measures of success, it’s probably not prioritizing what truly matters. And it’s probably also instilling a fear of failure among employees, which paralyzes employees instead of motivating them.

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    5. The Policies and Rules Are Inconsistent

    Every organization has its own set of unique policies and procedures. But often, unhealthy workplaces have inconsistent, unspoken “rules” that apply differently to different people. When one person gets in trouble for the same type of behavior that promotes another person, workers will feel like management plays favorites—which isn’t just unethical but also a quick way to drain morale and fuel tension in the office.[5] It only shows how incompetent the leadership is and indicates a toxic workplace.

    For example, maybe there’s no “set” rule about work hours, but your manager expects certain people or departments to show up at 8 am while other individuals tend to roll in at 9 or 10 am with no real consequences. If that’s the case, then it’s likely that your organization’s leadership is more concerned with controlling people and exerting power rather than the overall good of their employees.

    How to Deal With a Toxic Work Environment

    The first thing to know if you’re stuck in a toxic work environment is that you’re not stuck. While it’s ultimately the company’s responsibility to make positive changes that prevent harmful actions to employees, you also have an opportunity to speak up about your concerns—or, if necessary, depart the role altogether.

    If you suspect that you’re working in a toxic environment, think about how you can advocate for yourself. Start by raising your grievances about the culture in an appropriate setting, like a scheduled, one-on-one meeting with your supervisor.

    Can’t imagine sitting down with your supervisor to air those problems on your own? Form some solidarity with like-minded colleagues. Approaching management might feel less overwhelming when you have a “team” who shares your views.

    It doesn’t have to be an overtly confrontational discussion. Do your best to frame your concerns in a positive way by sharing with your supervisor that you want to be more productive at work, but certain problems sometimes get in the way.

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    Final Thoughts

    If your supervisor truly cares about the well-being of the organization, they will take your concerns seriously and actively take part in changing the toxic work environment into something more conducive to productivity.

    If not, then it might be time to consider the cost of the job on your well-being and personal life. Is it worth staying just for your resume’s sake? Or could you consider a “bridge” job that allows you to exhale for a bit, even if it doesn’t “move you ahead” the way you planned?

    It might not be the ideal situation, but your mental health and well-being are too important to ignore. And when you have the opportunity to refuel, you’ll be a far more valuable asset at whatever amazing job you land next.

    More Tips on Dealing With a Toxic Work Environment

    Featured photo credit: Campaign Creators via unsplash.com

    Reference

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