Most of us are familiar with the new landscape of tech startup offices — ping pong tables, swings, slides. All of these architectural elements are physical encouragements for the employees to embrace play in the way we often think of it, as the sorts of things we used to love doing as a kid. Play has a huge role to play (pun intended) in companies today, beyond just the startup sphere. Play doesn’t stop having benefits just because we grow up. Playing together helps bring people closer; in fact, it’s one of the four pathways to jumpstart high quality connections.  We let our guards down, share more of ourselves more authentically, and create a safe space for taking risks. All of these elements make an organization stronger, while making the culture more enjoyable at the same time.
What are ways we can incorporate play in the workplace? I can speak from experience about the ways I’ve seen play engage students in the classroom in many forms. Students today are familiar with the intense, yet still playful, competition that comes with jeopardy or kahoot review sessions. We can also think of play in less structured ways, like when my professor noticed that energy was low during midterm season so he asked for two students to volunteer to race in their rolly chairs. Soon we were all laughing and cheering at the silly and unexpected encouragement to play. We sustained our heightened energy for the rest of class and engaged more deeply with each other.
One important aspect of play is imagination. Martin Reeves, chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute, explores the role of imagination at work in his TED talk “Why Play Is Essential for Business” and in an interview with HBR. Given how quickly everything moves now, Reeves grounds the business case for imagination and play in the fact that “competitive advantage fades away faster than any time in recent memory,” meaning that companies need to continually reimagine their work in order to maintain success. But how can we facilitate the imagination process? Reeves proposes imagination games that emphasize taking perspectives other than your own and trying to make the best business you can for them to see what insights that sparks. As an example, he discusses his “Anti-Company” game, where you think about everything that has allowed you to be successful in your company so far and then try to imagine a case where you do the exact opposite of everything on your list. He talks about imagining that you are a hotel owner playing this game. One of your core assumptions is that you own a hotel, if you flip that and think through the possibilities for the best business case, you might arrive at something close to the idea for Air BnB. Reeves highlights the point of this exercise as helping us explore “the difference between ridiculous and the merely unfamiliar, untried, and uncomfortable.” For Reeves, play is “de-risked accelerated learning.” Creating a culture that values play helps organizations explore new ideas and tap into underused relational resources because it encourages employees to feel comfortable authentically sharing their perspective: “But when executives create playgrounds — spaces for the safe exploration of alternatives and alternative scenarios — then you get to tap into your employees’ considerable experience about the vulnerabilities and the weak spots and the blind spots of your company.”
Humor is another important aspect of play. In their TED talk “Why Great Leaders Take Humor Seriously,” Stanford professors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas share how humor helps bond people and teams and how a culture of levity can help people do their jobs better. They reassure us that we don’t need to try to become a comedian in order to reap these benefits — the important thing is to change our mindset to look for the humor and lightness in our lives:
“There’s a psychological principle called the priming effect that says our brains are wired to see what we’ve been set up to expect. In essence, we find what we choose to look for. So when we live our lives on the precipice of a smile, we shift how we interact with the world, and in turn, how it interacts back.”
Aaker and Naomi gave a practical example of how to infuse humor into your work with just one small adjustment: play around with your email sign-off. Instead of mindlessly writing “Best,” (as I admit I am apt to do), consider if there’s a way that you might give your recipient a little smile or chuckle. Like maybe, they say, “When you’ve been up all night: Yours heavily caffeinated.” In order to make this shift to using humor fulfill its goal of feeling like play rather than feeling like an awkward task, Aaker and Naomi remind us, “Start by recognizing it’s not about you. So don’t ask ‘Will this make me sound funny?’ Instead, ask: ‘How will this make other people feel?’”
Creating a culture of play can foster deeper connections, more creative solutions, and increased engagement — plus it’s fun!
Writing to you in my daytime pajamas,
 Dutton, Jane. “Build High Quality Connections” in How to Be a Positive Leader, 2014.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.