A Fresh Look at Work

By Samuel West

A playful approach to work can have numerous benefits, as psychologist Samuel West is discovering.

[© David Linderer]

In his memoir, Henry Ford wrote: "When we are at work we ought to be at work. When we are at play we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two." This anti-play approach to work has outlived the Industrial Revolution, and the notion that work and play are opposites still lingers in many workplaces. In Sweden, where, both as a researcher and as a consultant, I try to encourage more play in the workplace, I often hear the echo of the Puritan work ethic in the grumbling expression "this is a workplace, no playground sandbox!"

Interestingly, as we move away from the factories of the Industrial Revolution and find ourselves in the new knowledge-based economy, play seems to be increasingly welcomed in the workplace. For example, I recently read about office workers in cities around the world engaged in Post-it wars. In these "wars," offices competed to create artwork from colorful Post-it notes on their windows. The mosaics of Post-it notes depicted anything from video game figures to monsters, and the silly pictures served no apparent purpose other than to have fun.

Perhaps my favorite example of play at work can be found on YouTube. In a delightful video, a flight attendant at Southwest Airlines, tired of delivering his boring mandatory security announcement that is routinely ignored by passengers, raps the entire announcement to the accompaniment of the passengers' stomps and claps. The flight attendant could just have done his regular announcement but chose instead a playful approach. By rapping the message with an entertaining rhyme, he not only got the passengers' attention, he also tweaked his work task to make it more engaging and enjoyable for himself.

For my research on play, I have chosen to define play as a behavioral approach to an activity, or as Stuart Brown writes, "a state of mind." Play can be further defined by its basic elements--the more play criteria an activity meets, the greater the degree of playfulness. The five elements that characterize play are that it be self-chosen, fun, frivolous, imaginative and in some way bound by structure or rules. With this conceptualization, the activity itself becomes less important than how it is framed and approached. To be playful means therefore to frame a situation or a task in such a way that it is more enjoyable for oneself and others.

Play activities at work are very diverse. A usually non-playful activity such as cleaning becomes play when done with disco dance moves. A game of golf, however, risks ceasing to be play once it is approached as a serious business meeting. When I worked at a grocery store while in college, my main task was to stock the shelves. One day, a workmate suggested that we stock the shelves kung fu style, with speed, elegance and the appropriate kicks and screams. Suddenly, the monotonous task became the most fun job in the world. Other work tasks are trickier to approach playfully. As a researcher, I have yet to discover a playful approach to writing formal academic articles!

Enhanced Creativity

Research on play in organizations suggests that play or having a playful approach to work may be beneficial by promoting creativity, engagement, motivation, cooperation and well-being in the workplace. For my most recent study, I interviewed creativity consultants and play advocates around the world investigating how play is used to foster workplace creativity. I found that play is thought to promote organizational creativity by improving openness, increasing intrinsic motivation and building collaborative relationships needed in order to co-create and innovate.

For my current study, I've set up a lab in a conference room in a busy downtown conference facility. Workgroups use my room for their regular meetings or workshops as they would any other conference room, with one little difference: I do my psychological play experiments on them. So far, I've tested cuing play by exchanging the regular conference sweets for colorful sticky childish sweets, installed miniature ping-pong nets along with tiny paddles, and once by giving each participant a fake mustache. The preliminary results are promising: gently giving people permission to play during serious business meetings seems to increase engagement, collaboration and creativity. Okay . . . that is not entirely true. The mustaches didn't work. They induced such hilarity that we had to pause the experiment.

How Play Facilitates Creativity

• Increases openness

Exercises a nonjudgmental attitude: Playful activities exercise a stance of non-judgment amongst participants. The excuse to be spontaneous and silly allows individuals to temporarily let go of prestige and correctness.

Fosters exploration and permits mistakes: Playfulness increases tolerance of ambiguity. Playing allows for experimentation and improvisation. Groups that play together become more comfortable exploring and experimenting together.

Stimulates mental flexibility: Play expands perspectives and promotes the use of imagination and lateral thinking, aiding the discovery of new possibilities.

• Increases motivation

Play activities can function as an energizer, stimulating both the body and mind. They tap into the individual's intrinsic motivation, and the fun of play increases participation and engagement.

• Builds collaborative relationships

The positive social effects of play help build better relationships. Play serves as an effective shortcut to developing and maintaining the level of psychological safety needed for good group creativity. People find a common connection point and move into meaningful collaborative relationships.

Samuel West is a psychologist who left his work as a therapist to research play at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on how play facilitates creativity in the workplace. See (