How to approach your work as play

These days, we hear a lot about work-life balance. Yet the work and life boundary lines continue to shift in the wrong direction. Personal time is dwindling — disappearing without fuss. For many people, their working life is their life. Their days are jam-packed, intense, long and exhausting.

I spend a lot of time meeting people in different work environments and, while many are serious and single-minded about their work, others have a sense of fun and light-heartedness. Both types may be dedicated to their work, yet the people who achieve a balance between getting things done and having fun tend to be more satisfied with their work and life. Somehow, they have found a way to turn their work into play. Their attitude and behaviour are easy to be around and work gets done in a spirit of openness, guided by humour, passion and enjoyment.


Why play at work?

Why would you bother trying to make work into play? After all, it’s risky (things could go out of control), it’s uncertain (too many grey areas) and time-consuming (tasks might not get done). You might make a fool of yourself, or even enjoy yourself to the point of feeling guilty afterwards for having experienced such pleasure. Any of these chaotic or unintended consequences could result from playing. “Work needs to be work and let’s leave it at that” is an attitude that seems to be asserting itself with alarming frequency across the workplace.

Anthropologist Garry Chick of Penn State University comments: “In the past 30 years, there has been a cultural shift, re-emphasising work and getting ahead. We still play, but much of it seems to lack a playful quality. Playfulness has been replaced by aggressiveness and the feeling that more needs to be crammed into less time."

Play, argues Brian Sutton-Smith, is more than an attitude and more than an action. While it encompasses development, it’s not about that. It’s about pure enjoyment. As the Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith is still the ranking dean of play studies. He considers play an alternative cultural form, like art and music.

People who are light-hearted and in good spirits are more likely to be successful. Their mental and physical attitude increases oxygen, endorphins and blood flow to the brain, which helps them to think more clearly and creatively. They are more relaxed and spontaneous, more accepting of others and more likely to share their sense of humour. People like to be with people who are having fun.

One of the most enjoyable work moments I experienced happened in a meeting with an insurance company manager. He and I were collaborating on a project and came across government regulations hindering the project. We sat together, attempting to navigate regulation after regulation and were frustrated and confused the more time we spent on it. At one point, he took a deep sigh, put his elbows on the desk, leant his face into his palms and, taking a long breath, paused in silence.

I sat quietly looking at him and thought, what next? I saw a scribble on his pad that looked like someone riding a bike. As he looked up, I said, “Your scribble looks like someone riding a bike.” He laughed and immediately grabbed his pen and drew a picture of a large circle and a small circle inside it. “What does this look like?” he blurted. “Like a hat or a donut,” I replied. I then drew a picture beside his. He responded by drawing another picture and a symbol. We played picture games in his office for at least five minutes.

As we laughed and joked, it somehow folded back into the project’s dilemma. We came back to it and took 30 seconds, or less, to solve it. I walked out feeling jubilant with a sense of achievement, enriched by the experience. It was fun and, more importantly, it changed the way I worked with him in the future.

Most of the time, work is pushed by meeting deadlines, achieving targets, keeping to schedules and focusing on bottom lines. Money, in most cases, tends to bump play to the sidelines. “Time is money, so don’t waste it” is the catchphrase. More done, more productivity, more dollars tick over.

Does it really work like that? Perhaps it does in the overall equation of work time and productivity, if that’s your sole intention. This attitude comes with a toll, though: dissatisfaction with self and damaged relationships. But many workplaces are now bucking the trend and becoming friendlier.

Virgin is a great example of a company with a philosophy about work as play. Imbued with a spirit of creativity, fun, innovation and adventure, it seeks to challenge workplace conventions. I know this doesn’t work for all companies, but it doesn’t mean you should take play off your values list in your work.

Price Waterhouse Coopers has a philosophy about balancing work and play. They state: “When you love what you do, it shows. We choose lawyers who are passionate about what they do. We also want to work with people who are fun, who have fun and who understand how to balance work and play.”


Why play is important

As work demands and pressures increase, our time is taken up in thinking about work problems. Work is slicing into our personal time and we are behaving more and more as working people with our family and close friends. For those who are upwardly mobile and career focused, this might be perfectly acceptable. Here’s an example in the following short email extract I received from a work colleague: ”I take business extremely seriously and I find it hard to integrate the seriousness of my business life with the joys of my personal life. It’s no joke when I am dealing with people’s money and giving advice, and making decisions affecting the livelihoods of others who trust me. You see, business is not a game and making money is certainly not a game.”

I agree that having people’s livelihood in your hands is a serious responsibility. What I wonder is whether the author of the email is taking their role too seriously and over-compensating. This can happen to any of us. The illusion is that happiness will come when you have achieved your goal or completed the project. Everything will be better when you have done the work and achieved your target. But surely the quality of the journey is as important as the outcome — if not more so.

Playing makes us feel good, breaks down barriers between people, relieves stress and boredom, builds trusting relationships and increases enthusiasm and optimism. A fun and positive attitude makes working more enjoyable and motivating, which in turn brings greater work satisfaction.

Turning work into play is just an attitude. It’s important to create play and be willing to have some play during work time. Children are an obvious model for this. They are utterly absorbed in the present moment and everything is play to them. But somewhere along the line, a divide is created between work and play. They’re seen as not going together. Work responsibilities are serious and so become personal responsibilities.

Why is work taking so much of our time? Why does it need to dominate so much of our awareness and be such a chore? You and I, all of us, need to change our attitude towards work. We need to see it in a new and fresh way to experience work as play.


What does play mean?

“Play is not just a verb. It is a quality to be experienced,” said sociologist David Reisman, who came to the conclusion that play is a quality (as opposed to an activity) we come to experience and can only vaguely describe. Play is an interaction or engagement with levity, having a carefree nature, or being in an experiential state of being light or buoyant. Play is a freeing, opening, non-judgemental, appreciative, joyous and learning experience.

Over the past few desades, behavioural science studies have shown that play is an essential behaviour for environmental and social adaptation processes. For instance, play helps in learning basic hunting skills (tigers) or understanding one’s place in the herd (horses). When play is structured and goal-oriented, it’s often in the form of a game.


Time to play

The Greeks have two philosophies about work based on time and both are symbolised in their mythology as gods presiding over the human world. One is Chronos, the other Kairos. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time. Chronos time is measured by movements of the clock and calendar. It’s orderly and predictable. Kairos, on the other hand, is nebulous, unpredictable, in between time; it’s moments of indeterminate timespan in which “something special happens”. Chronos is physical time and Karios is metaphysical time.

You know you are in Kairos time when you are absorbed in what you’re doing. Time dissolves into the moment and you are at one with what’s occupying you at that moment. It’s a state of flow, whereby you are moving effortlessly from one task to another. In this state of flow, different elements play in a natural affinity with each other. The dots are joined and a clear picture emerges, allowing decisions about the next step to flow automatically. In this consciousness, you’re an observer, detached and free from limiting judgments so you can experience being open, broad, imaginative, trusting and willing to take a risk and to be present.

In this open space, perceptions interact creatively, and with fresh eyes you see numerous solutions and combinations rather than judging or being defensive and stuck in preconceived ideas. Being free and open is a joy. In playing, bonds are formed, resulting in healthy, intimate, honest and trusting relationships.

A large financial institution I worked with would, every day at five to five, gather staff in the reception area and all sing a song before they went home. “What kind of song will we sing today?” someone would shout. “Hip-hop? Jazz? Rock? Folk?” Then, using folders as accordions, staplers as finger cymbals and pens as drumsticks, we’d launch into a giggly rendition of ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen. There would be hysterical laughter as colleagues applauded each other’s efforts. By making time to play, we determined the quality of our work time.


Benefits of play

  • Play induces a state of openness, readiness, alertness and anticipation.
  • Play helps to solve problems rather than being besieged by them. Problems shrink and solutions are achieved faster.
  • Play increases the appetite for new experiences. You begin to search for fresh challenges that help you learn new skills and discover talents you didn’t know you had.
  • Play helps you to be innovative and creative. You see new opportunities where you might not have seen any before.
  • Play defuses stress and tension to help you achieve better workflow. Positive neuro-chemicals flood your brain and body to help you maintain resilience and endurance and keep your mind clear and sharp.

Tips to make work play

  1. Work on your attitude

    Ask yourself: What is my attitude towards work? What attitude do I need to make work play? If doesn’t come easily, try this. Make your attitude towards work a colour. If you want to be more passionate or energised, imagine the colour red; for calm make it blue, and so forth. Or imagine an animal displaying your desired attitude: a lion for confidence or a dolphin for playfulness. You decide on the attitude and then pick a colour, animal or object to match. Have fun with it.

  2. Explore your options

    Which aspects of your work allow for play? Find gaps for daily play and capitalise on them. Work meetings are very measured and tight, with little room for play. Introduce a playful element and watch the meeting change. A set of toys in a meeting room always makes things interesting. A sponge or soft rubber ball can be tossed around the room, keeping people alert. Explore your options and try to bring some play into them. The Google offices have skateboards, rollerblades, scooters and bikes for employees to play with. In Google culture, play is considered one of the most important values. Whatever works for you and your workplace, and does no physical or psychological harm, is good.

  3. Embrace interruptions

    Who wants interruptions? Most of us don’t. They’re annoying and intrusive and the thing we all fight against. With interruptions out of the way, I would achieve much more. Well, maybe … In the Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, Professor John Briggs and Physicist F. David Peat show that random interruptions break mechanical time and allow us to reorganise internal systems to preserve equilibrium. This interruption or disruption phenomenon is really helping us rather than hindering us. So the next time you are interrupted, take it as a mental or physical break — life is doing you a favour.

  4. Be creative

    Creativity is where play begins and work ceases to be laborious. Creative behaviour is based on doing things differently, keeping fresh, being more present, alert and open to opportunities in interactions. Why not make a conscious decision to do things creatively? Try this fun activity. Draw a picture that clearly represents your job. Is this a positive picture or a negative one? If it’s negative, look for the positive in it, or decide to draw a brighter picture of your job. This activity helps you be aware of your behaviour and attitude towards your work.

  5. Develop a play philosophy

    Do you have a play philosophy? If not, reflect on how you can develop one. Can you be more creative? Can you have more fun at work? Can you be less self-judging and allow yourself to take risks? Examples of play philosophy might be:

    • Every task is creative and fun.
    • Play is productive and cost-effective.
    • Play is the path of least resistance.
    • Play is effortless work.
    • Think up your own play philosophy to underpin and guide your work. Most importantly, remember to have fun with it.

    So go and play. Start by going to Move your mouse around the screen, click and repeat.


    Victor Sultas is a corporate consultant, coach and presenter with two decades of experience in workplace performance programs. W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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