Play in the Work Place

A growly voice on a conference call said “Danny, get control of this meeting.”

I was not sure if that person out ranked me and it wasn’t the time or place to debate management styles, so I cracked the whip, brought order to the meeting and worked through the agenda. But it got me to thinking.

Life it too short not to have some fun in the 8 to 12 hours we spend working every day. But my gut told me there is more to it than that. We are not Egyptian slaves building pyramids. Our teams, resources, peers, contractors and subject matter experts all need something more from their work than the pay cheque they get every couple of weeks. And all of them have enough skill and experience to go work somewhere else if we don’t give them what they need.

What are they looking for, and what can managers give their teams by allowing a bit of play?

Starting with what people want; I think they want to make a difference. They want to work on meaningful projects, with modern tools, equipment and processes. They want the training to not just stay current but to rise in their professions;  to be the ‘Experts’ in Subject Matter Experts. They want to be treated with respect, to be included in the planning and design of a project, and to have their input and suggestions given full regard. They want to be part of a team, a winning team.

So my natural inclination for years has been to give the teams as much as I can. Let them make the decisions where appropriate. Let them choose when and where to work. Let them choose their training, and let them choose which projects they want to work on. And create a work environment that is safe for people to make suggestions in that might be unorthodox. A safe environment. A fun environment.

It has worked for me and I have moved forward in my career by building teams of people who want to work with me, again and again. But it has been a gut instinct. Years ago I had a team of technical people working with me at Children’s and Women’s Health Center in Vancouver. We started every morning with a bit of a huddle and the team lead distributed work to the team. We joked. We laughed. We traded stories of what had happened lately both on the job and in our personal lives. And then the team went to work. They were so productive that we started ending up completing all the work just after noon every Friday. So I started letting people have Friday afternoons off, which caused another whole problem I will talk to some other time. But my gut instinct to let the team have fun paid off in much higher productivity than the plan called for.

One morning at C&W a woman who worked on the floor stuck her head into our War Room. “What are you people doing here?” she laughed. “You are having far too much fun to call this work!” I took that as one of the highest compliments I have ever had on the job. They days flew by. The work we delivered was first rate, we came in under budget, and we used that job and our references to grow the business by a quantum jump in the following year.

So when I was recently called out for allowing some fun and play in a weekly meeting, I knew I was right to allow it, to encourage it even. But before I could debate it, I needed some support. My anecdotal experiences would not carry enough weight. I needed some tangible evidence and some hard numbers. So a few searches on Google and a couple of TED talks later, I found tons.

The Science of Play is only now getting the funding and research it deserves. And as with early research in most fields the learning and understanding is coming in leaps and bounds. We now have measureable data proving that play and fun have positive impacts. Huge positive impacts.

Some of those Outcomes:

Increased productivity, innovation and creativity.

Strengthen relationships, group & social bonds.

Reduce tension and stress. Refreshes your mind and body.

Increase trust.

Improved social skills.

Healthier, happier engaged team members.

So the next time someone suggests cracking down on fun in the work place, point out the reasons for allowing some play. You have the science to support you.


Play: How it Shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. Dr. Stuart Brown .

National Institute for Play :

A Whole New Mind . Daniel H. Pink .

Playworks . Jenn Hoos Rothberg