Business

The importance of play at work

The working population spends nearly 70% of their days at work. We all know that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy(/girl!)’ so what can we do to make sure that employees have enough ‘play’ during their time at work?

Historically ‘play’ has been associated with children but there is a growing trend recognising the importance of play in adults. The concept of play started as part of our fight-or-flight response and it’s been a part of all cultures across the world ever since – it is part of the fabric of being human.

Outside of the occasional team social, usually involving dinner and drinks, play is still generally overlooked in the workplace and largely seen as mutually exclusive (if you’re playing, you’re not working!). With significant shifts in the work landscape since the pandemic, if employers wish to improve retention levels, it’s now accepted that increasing the level of ‘play’ in day-to-day employee interactions could solve more than one current problem facing teams.

Why should employers increase play in the workplace?

Improved mental health

The NHS look at mental wellbeing through five key pillars – connecting with people, being physically active, learning new skills, giving to others and paying attention to the present moment.

An increase in play generally leads to increased connection with people; play provides the potential for being physically active; depending on the nature of the play employees can learn new skills; and while in play employees are forced to be present in the moment, with work and life worries ideally fading temporarily into the background.

In 2022 London School Economics published a study that playing location-based games that encourage outdoor activity, face-to-face socialisation and exposure to nature may alleviate mild depression. The study findings were based on Pokemon Go, but other events such as StreetHunt Games’ gamification of city exploration were also quoted as a popular example.

Addressing the reduced connection resulting from hybrid working

We’re getting close to two years since the COVID 19 restrictions ended but we’ve seen a permanent change to the working from home culture compared to pre-pandemic. Whereas working from home used to be the exception, as of May 2023, 39% of workers in Great Britain had worked from home at some point in the previous 7 days.

This reduction in face-to-face interaction at work means that employers need to find other ways to ensure their teams are connecting. Introducing elements of play into the working day, for example bringing colleagues together with face-to-face play can potentially reduce the risk of isolation and loneliness.

Cognitive benefits

It is believed that play has cognitive benefits for adults, including improved memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National institute of play was quoted as saying that ‘play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability and creativity…nothing fires up the brain like play.’

A BBC article in 2022 asked the question ‘Is it time we took ‘play’ more seriously?’ The article explored the reasons children play and it was explained by Sam Wass, a child psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of East London, that play helps to build connections between different parts of the brain which haven’t necessarily been connected before.

Increased happiness and therefore productivity

There is a significant benefit to employers having happier employees with evidence from the University of Oxford indicating that happy workers are 13 per cent more productive.

For Samantha Warren, Professor at the University of Portsmouth, having a “good old laugh at work seems to be the solution for everything.”

Her work suggests that being playful can make businesses better with effects such as “reduced absenteeism, greater commitment, more creativity, better team building and general happiness.”

What practical changes can organisations make to incorporate more play into the workplace?

Introduce play to team training

Learning and development are critical to a teams’ success and one way to increase employee engagement is to introduce elements of play into training and workshops.

This is a concept used by LEGO in their LEGO SERIOUS PLAY methodology. They run facilitated sessions, where participants are playing with LEGO and they’ve found this kind of hands-on, minds-on learning produces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities. It encourage reflection, as well as develop problem-solving skills and use of the imagination.

Bring play to team socials

Historically team socials involve dinner and a reliance on alcoholic drinks, but there has been a growing trend to increase the level of play at such events and move to activity-based team socials instead.

As reported by Raconteur, VenueScanner’s head of BSB Sophie Knight noted that they have seen a 2.5 times increase in reservations for experience and activity-based venues over the 2023 Christmas period, compared to last year.

There are a number of examples of activity based team socials such as ten-pin bowling, electronic darts, crazy golf, escape rooms and outdoor scavenger hunt games. Events such as StreetHunt Games and Monopoly Lifesized have substantial proportions of their business generated through corporate bookings.

Ensure adequate breaks

Increased play can also be enabled through ensuring employees have time and flexibility in their working day to fit in their choice of activities. This could include playing a game of squash or tennis with a colleague or friends, a gym or dance class or a game of table tennis in the workplace.

Table tennis England have reported that 51% of workplace table tennis participants reported they increased their physical activity levels since playing at work. Healthy body = healthy mind!

The use of technology

There is now a whole industry dedicated to providing gamification software to businesses with the aim of boosting engagement. This includes games that employees play to teach them how to become better salespeople or self-improvement training using habit tracking software.

If companies are looking to improve workplace processes, gamification software may also provide an efficient solution. Wazoku, a web based workplace idea generation and innovation tool, incorporates challenges and leaderboards into such activities, facilitating play whilst looking to improve working practices/environments.

Play is not a new concept – it was a method used to appease the Gods in Roman times. The Roman Games included chariot races, gladiator contests and theatrical performances which were held in honour of Jupiter, the king of the gods.

Although not new, its role in adult society and in particular in the workplace is evolving and a likely trend in 2024 is for the importance of play for both employers and employees continuing to increase.

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The importance of play at work