The Importance of Play in Business - 133T
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The Importance of Play in Business

October 23, 2017

Charles Eames famously said “Take your pleasure seriously.” This is exactly what businesses should try to do.

Business  matters, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it requires straight faces and serious tones. In fact, business could benefit from more play, with a profound and positive impact on relationships, profit and success.

A playful business can be one that’s more creative when solving problems. It can be one that builds positive team dynamics. Its workforce may be healthier and less stressed. Employees will be more engaged and actually work harder. And, a business that embraces play can be more profitable and successful.

The science bit

Scientists have long propounded the importance of play. It helps with understanding cultural and social norms. It offers opportunities to form relationships. It’s a way to explore without limitation and inhibition.

Children who play sports may develop better emotional self efficacy. It’s even been correlated with the development of larger brains and thus intelligence. Social, cognitive and motor skills all can be improved through play.

Innovative businesses

We’ve all hear examples of businesses that have a playful approach to their workplace. Think of Google’s slides, LEGO’s open plan play areas and Zynga (the developer behind social games like FarmVille) glowing tunnel and dog friendly policies.) LEGO founder Jørgen Vig Knudstorp has developed a consulting business called Serious Play, which has executives work with special LEGO sets as a group exercise in order to “build it out or play it out.”

These organizations are famed for their creative thinking and entrepreneurial outlook – something that play fosters.

By thinking outside of the normal corporate processes and rules they are able to come with innovative approaches that push boundaries. We’ve all seen children act with imagination, and this flexible thinking doesn’t have to be lost as adults. It just takes practice.

Whether it’s doing a crossword or trying role play, the act of creativity forms different connections in our brains. It’s these neural pathways that allow us to think outside the box and come up with new solutions. It allows us to stop doing things just because we’ve always done them and instead overcome hurdles and limitations with pioneering ideas.

As Jo Gifford, a content and creative thinking consultant, says “Now, more than ever, as the world we live in changes at lightning speed, the ability to adapt, innovate, and find solutions is a critical competency.”

Businesses that evolve are successful businesses.

Understanding customers

We’ve all cringed at the idea of role play, but the fact is that the very act of pretending to be someone else is in its own way an embodiment of creating understanding.

Through play, people can broaden their outlook and experiment with changing roles and challenging their assumptions. This allows them to get a better understanding of other people – including colleagues and customers. People may find themselves better able to understand what their customers want, and thus be able to deliver it – boosting sales as a result.

Team work

It’s important that play is not just individual. Collaborative play sets up opportunities for interacting with different people, thus leading to different ways of working together.

Anyone working with children knows the social importance of play. It’s a way of building relationships and creating connections with others, of breaking down barriers and creating links. The best working relationships are often formed outside of the boardroom, and built on mutual respect and empathy rather than impressive resumes or lengthy meetings.

Employee engagement

If you enjoy your work, you’re much more likely to stay there. Shayen de Silva runs digital marketing agency Web Profits, and says that “having fun is a huge part of our company culture.” He’s seen it help “develop strong bonds between team members, inspire team members to be more innovative and provide them with a chance to break from the usual routine.” It’s also a reason that people stay with them for a long time.

Allowing for play in the workplace will help retain team members and inspire them to invest more of their skills into the business.

Digital Marketing Executive Gregory Golinski agrees. “The absence of play leads to apathy, which leads to employee indifference. They feel like drones and don’t care about the future of the business that employs them. But if a business gives priority to a collective spirit, spontaneity, communication in a playful manner, employees will enjoy going to the office, and they’ll feel much more involved in the company.”

Healthy employees

Play relieves stress by triggering the release of endorphins. We tend not to get many of the body’s natural feel-good chemicals when we’re at work, which is one of the reasons for the Monday morning dread. It’s a shame, given that we spend a vast proportion of our waking life at work.

By finding more opportunities to play, we can reduce those stress levels. In their 2005 book, Banishing Burnout, Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach stated that job stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $300 billion, whilst the mental health charity MIND estimate the impact in the UK to be £100 billion. It’s the result of poor health, diminished productivity, absenteeism and accidents.

A healthy and happy workforce is good for business.

How?

Lisa Murray runs Creative Alchemi, and believes that it can be easy to bring play to the office.

Thing as simple as colored paper for doodling on or training from comedians rather than corporates can have a significant impact. But it’s important that play does not being prescriptive.  She says, “Playful is the new mindful. There’s no one way to ‘do it right’ and it starts with not taking business so seriously. We are born playful not productive for a reason!”

Jack Stack is the author of The Great Game of Business and businesses around the world have adopted the business improvement system based on the book. Essentially this involves management of a company based on the elements of a game – scores, teamwork, rules and results. The impact is a motivated workforce invested in their company and its performance.

Leadership development coach Shane Warren says its crucial to develop an environment where people can comfortably engage in a game, “thus breaking some of the traditional workplace mindsets of ‘this is a place of work, leave your fun at the door.'” He recommends that companies simply have a space where people can engage in game playing, without inhibition. “This can be as simple as board games in the staff room or something I like is to have a riddle board where members of team can participate in a bit of a friendly over a set period of time of who can get the riddle correct and first… this strategy does not take up much room and can easily start a culture of game engagement.”

So why does this matter?

Hopefully it’s clear by now that play can have a profoundly positive impact on business.

Happier employees, a more productive workforce, an innovative mindset and a committed team are all results that companies who have embraced play have seen.

Whether it’s installing a pool table or sending your board on comedy courses, there’s plenty of ways to sprinkle fun into work, and make it impact the bottom line. In fact, it’s child’s play.

Go out there and have some FUN today!

Francesca Baker is a writer, marketer and research with a passion and skill for communication and connection. You can find out more by following her on Twitter or visiting her website And So She Thinks.