Rethinking play at work – beyond gamification

Work is no place for play

Where has the fun gone? Re-thinking playfulness at work

Work is no place for play, though the trend for gamification seems to contradict it. Playfulness and being in flow can contribute to work engagement, wellbeing and much more but traditional thinking of play as childish risks hollowing out what we are learning about the benefits of playfulness. Gamification offers a seemingly “serious”, acceptable alternative – but wrong use could undo the good in playfulness.

Here’s an exploration of where playfulness went in our workplaces (and adult life), how it is finding its way back, how we can use it purposefully and why it may not always work.

Back to work…

Do you remember at the start of September? “Back to school” ads were mushrooming, reminding children everywhere that the fun days of summer holidays are over. What about “back to work”? How do we adults prepare ourselves for a return to our desks or other place of work?

Coming to the end of a vacation often comes with a sigh and an “ah well, all good things must end” (assuming your vacations were not consumed by dealing with traffic jams, lost luggage, ill-tempered travel companions etc). Vacations are a time when we can just be, luxuriate in the knowledge that we don’t HAVE to do anything (unless we pack this time with things to do). We can aimlessly enjoy the days and let our thoughts and imagination run wild. With one month in – do you still remember how that felt? Are you already longing for your next vacation?

Growing up

Somehow, the relationship with vacation – as an adult – reminds me of childhood, when my parents would say: “First you finish your homework, then you can go out to play.” Strangely, now I seem to be telling myself that I need to do my work and chores first (including after work and at weekends), and only then have I earned my vacation/play time. It doesn’t seem a sensible way of thinking, does it?!

It is difficult to let go of such beliefs, even for someone like me who focuses on playfulness, humour and laughter as part of my work. Giving oneself permission to have fun at work seems a challenge not just for me. I often notice the resistance of people when I suggest using the character strength of humour at work or turning work into play. This thinking of “work=serious” and “non-work=fun” seems deeply engrained in most parts of the world, even though we have plenty of research that shows how beneficial a bit more fun can be for our wellbeing, including at work.

Let’s see if we might be able to rescue some of this playful “holiday vibe” mindset into the workplace or at least the weekends.

How we learn that work and play are 2 different things

Why is it so difficult to break the perceived link of “work=serious” and “non-work=fun”? Often, we associate play with something that children do; and as a result, play must be childish. As adults, we may play sports – but we do that for fitness, not for fun, right? We may play with our kids because that’s what good parents do. And so the list goes on of activities where we explain away its playful element.

But play is hugely important for our development, even as adults (just in case you need a reason why it is ok to play). Play helps develop creativity, problem solving, social skills and more. When we play, we can develop and practise new skills in a safe environment.

Gamifying work (we don’t play here)

These days, even the people in your HR and L&D departments may be found using “play” only they may talk about the gamification of learning tools (sounds less childish than play, right?). Gamification can certainly make sitting through your company’s compliance training a bit more fun.

But playfulness and play used properly goes beyond “a bit of fun with learning tools” and making training less dull. Fun alone doesn’t improve learning – but play can make learning fun and effective. Even the dull stuff. Let me explain.

When learning flows

Positive psychology knows a concept called Flow where a person undertakes a task for the sheer joy of doing it. The task is just challenging enough to be manageable but stretches one’s existing skills so that new skills need to be learned or existing ones developed further. It’s easy to lose all sense of time when doing this, and no matter how long it takes, it is enjoyable and creates a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Think, for example, of someone learning to play an instrument, solving the daily crossword faster each week or building something rather than buying it.

When we are in a state of flow, the task we set ourselves feels like play – and that’s where the fun AND the learning happen.

So, as a first little task, use an hour or so next weekend to play – and I mean, really play!! Without the justification that it serves a serious purpose. Just have some fun, and notice how that feels.

Reframe “play”

So far so good, you might say, but still: Surely, it’s not ok to play like that at work! To that I would say: Why not?

When we think of play, we tend to think of chaotic scenes in a playground with screams and laughter and much fooling around. Often, play=childish in our thinking. We tend to forget those playground moments where children may (relatively) quietly spend considerable time building castles, canal systems, develop elaborate games and fantasy worlds. You rarely see chess players screeching with laughter or concert pianists childishly hanging from the rafters when they play. So, where’s the crux here?

Embrace your inner child at work

Maybe the issue is less “play” and “playfulness” but what we have come to associate with these terms. What if play was something that is just as “serious” as work? Does a person in flow take their task less seriously because they experience it almost like a game? No.

If play might be just as serious, then might it be OK to bring playfulness into the workplace? How can we turn work into a safe place where we can play and have fun while we improve our skills to do the job we’re doing without feeling childish?

I challenge you to explore your own thinking about what playfulness is for you, and which parts of these assumptions may be helpful or not.

Dopamine for positive motivation and behaviour change (and how coaches can use it)

Play and playfulness can help us to grow and learn (at work and in life in general), and maybe by now you have started to change your thinking about play. So, let’s move it into the workplace, and I’ll start with the work of coaches for no other reason than that it is my field of work.

Playfulness in coaching can be an interesting tool. This is arguably even more the case in positive psychology coaching where playfulness is part of the character strength of humour and where employing flow can help improve or support positive motivation for behaviour change in coaching clients.

One of the mechanisms at play (pardon the pun) is the dopamine release from play which is experienced like a little treat we give ourselves. Activating our body’s own (neurochemical) reward system can have surprising effects when it comes to trying to change behaviour, learn new ways of doing things and keeping at it even when it takes work and effort. Thus, it may not only create a more positive motivation to learn, change and develop, but effects can also be longer lasting.

Personally, I think creating one’s own game is great because we can use our own creativity and tailor it to so that we can better tackle especially difficult changes in behaviour in us (like going to the gym more often). However, sometimes it can just be a bit too time consuming to come up with our own games, and luckily (or not), there’s also not just one but several apps for that. One such provider promises to “gamify your life” and treat “your real life like a game”.

So if you’re a coach, why not return to work with a bit of playfulness and flow in your coaching toolbox?
(If you are a coach and want to find out more how to use the character strength of humour in your coaching practice, check out this article by Jannie Stricker and me or watch our webinar on the topic for the IPPC.

Gamify your chores with “focus sprints”

So far we looked at play and gamification in the work of coaches, especially when the client sets a goal that is challenging, like changing habits.

But playfulness, play and games aren’t just for coaching and lofty goals – they work just as well with the mundane like tedious chores we need to get through both at work and at home. And let’s face it, every job has those tasks – so why not bring a bit of play into work and “gamify” your chores?

An FT “Working it” newsletter from August 2022 looked at exactly these challenges with the help of Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at UC Berkley. She suggested to bundle such tedious small tasks to create a “dopamine threshold” to increase the dopamine release achieved from completing the combined chores. Basically, it’s about making doing these tasks worth your while. Sahar suggests so called Focus Sprints as a way to achieve this. Setting a timer and eliminating all distractions (e.g., notifications, phones) while ploughing through the bundle of chores.

Not only faster, but also better

While in this design, the game is mainly the race against the clock, it seems to be missing the learning/flow elements. Let’s face it, how much will you ever learn from tidying up your inbox faster, for example? Well, there are ways to introduce some learning. For example, don’t just race against the clock but check if you notice a pattern that allows you to set “rules” in your inbox settings that help you keep your inbox in check going forward? And what about rewards other than dopamine? I think I deserve at least a fresh cup of tea after an hour’s chores.

How can you gamify your chores?

Work – an efficient, fun-free zone (a brief detour into economics)

But why do we need to (re-)introduce play and flow into work in the first place? The finger is often pointed at some of the great economic thinkers like Frederick Taylor, the “inventor” of Taylorism, or David Ricardo, he of the comparative cost advantage. By focussing on producing the things where a person/country has a comparative advantage or breaking tasks down into minute tasks and specialisation, we tend to remove some of the ingredients that lead us to flow, especially if we get disconnected from the result/product. Yes, we increase efficiency, performance etc, but we also remove a lot of meaning that an artisan or craftsman may find in doing a job start to finish.

Engagement at work

Where the reward might have been a beautiful product or great service for customers that allowed us to hone our own skills, we now have KPIs, profit centres and bonuses. It also explains some of the disengagement that employees can experience working for a company.

But how can we bring engagement, meaning and flow back without removing all the benefits that have been achieved thanks to people like Ricardo and Taylor? Well, this is where flow, playfulness and play can come in. After all, every idea for performance and efficiency improvement starts with a play with ideas – give it a try!!

What are your ideas to re-introduce meaning and connection with your work?

Play comes with responsibility

I hope that by now you are more comfortable with the idea of permitting yourself to be more playful, maybe even at work. Or maybe you look with less judgement on your colleagues who seem to have “fun and games” when they do their work (just as diligently as you do).

Just as you start to get comfortable, let me unsettle you – just a bit (but especially, if you are in HR, leadership and marketing). Like everything, there are times when we should NOT use playfulness or be wary how we use it. This relates especially to work contexts, with special responsibility here for HR and L&D departments, but also marketing specialists who may use gamification for engagement with products and advertising.

The problem: when we are being played

  1. First of all, don’t mistake your workforce engaging with your latest wellbeing app or lively competitions to be at the top of a course leaderboard for having solved the problem of staff disengagement from work. They may still find their job and work environment as tedious as they did before. So, playfulness and gamification won’t improve your staff retention rates or reduce burnout if you don’t fix the work culture as well.
  2. Second, using gamification strategies to coax an already overworked staff into doing even more work can have the opposite effect and damage employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. So, before rolling out games and play, make sure you understand the state of wellbeing of your people – use playfulness responsibly.
  3. Third, gamification is a powerful tool for marketing and sales. Let’s face it, every campaign wants customer engagement  and every company wants to sell their products and services – that’s only fair. But they shouldn’t “game” people into spending money they don’t have or even exploit a gaming addiction. So, don’t play with people – these are human beings, not just sales statistics or disembodied followers.
  4. Finally, some people are simply not in a place to play. For example, we cannot know if maybe a person’s relative has been diagnosed with cancer. Some people may find it difficult when everyone around them is in playful, happy mood and there is a perceived pressure to join in or else explain why they’re not. So, ensure there is a safe space for those who do not want to play at this point.

Wrapping up playfulness

So let’s recap what I covered on the topic of thinking “work=serious” and “non-work=fun” in this long-read article:

  1. We learn from early childhood that work & play are 2 different things, and we perpetuate this thinking in adulthood
  2. How can we reframe our thinking about playfulness? By embracing its benefits and giving us permission to play without feeling childish
  3. Playfulness can support positive motivation for behaviour change in coaching
  4. Gamifying chores can make dull tasks easier and even provide learning opportunities
  5. But why do we need to (re)introduce playfulness into work? A brief history of economics
  6. Beware: When we are being played instead of choosing to play – a guide for HR & co. on using playfulness and flow responsibly and why it may backfire in the wrong context

Thank you for reading this exploration of playfulness in work contexts, I hope you enjoyed it and got one or two ideas to bring play into your work. And now: Go and have some fun!!

#humour #play #positivepsychology #workandplay #coaching #wellbeingatwork


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