What if companies could improve employee experience and ease workplace problems like quiet quitting and burnout by having more fun? It turns out there’s research to support this, which explains why there is an entire methodology for improved organizational communication and teamwork called the LEGO Serious Play method.
If this type of approach raises some critical eyebrows, it might be because of a long-standing division between work and play. Even the phrase “work hard, play hard” establishes a clear hierarchy: you can play, but only after you’ve completed a commensurate amount of work. On the spectrum of human experience, “work” and “play” are seen as opposites.
However, note what play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith says about that traditional view of work and play: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”
There are serious implications for employee well-being and engagement when employees can’t bring their whole selves to work, and play theorists like Sutton-Smith insist that play is critical to that equation. Play can also contribute to business success by boosting innovative thinking, productivity, and resilience.
What does it mean to “play” at work?
Before managers and team leads start scheduling “recess” into the workday, it’s important to understand what it means to “play” and how that fits into the context of work.
For starters, play is not just for kids, nor is it just goofing off, telling jokes, and/or playing games.
According to the National Institute For Play (NIFP), play is less about a specific activity and more about attitude and mindset. The NIFP offers this guideline for knowing if something is play or not: “If the person doing it is engaged and feeling content with the challenge, then it is play; if the person is feeling bored, irritated, or burdened by the task then it is not play.”
For example, if a person is bowling but is unhappy and disengaged, they are not really “playing.” Conversely, if an employee is deep in a project and feels excited, fulfilled, and motivated, they are tapping into a “play state,” even if the activity appears to be anything but playful.
In A Playful Path, author and game designer Bernard DeKoven emphasizes this when he writes, “You don’t have to play to be playful. You don’t need toys or games or costumes or joke books. But you do have to be open, vulnerable, you do have to let go… Playfulness is all about being vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment.”
The benefits of play in the workplace
When you define play as an attitude and state of being, it’s easier to see how play at work can improve employee experience and contribute positively to workplace performance. Here are four reasons to rethink the work/play divide.
Improved internal motivation
Being in a state of play means feeling intrinsically motivated to do a task without being compelled or obligated. When people feel absorbed and stimulated by an activity, they gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose. This means employees are less likely to glance at the clock every few minutes or give in to quiet quitting.
One way to simulate this at work is to offer employees flexibility and choice. When employees have a sense of freedom, whether it’s in their schedule, their work, or both, they will be more invested in their work and may even find themselves looking for additional ways to contribute to the workplace.
Better connection and shared purpose
In an article for Psychology of Well-Being, researchers conclude that play “may have a potential in serving as a lubricant in social situations but also helping in work-related settings (EX: in meetings or group efforts).” In other words, play can help improve teamwork and support a sense of connection between colleagues.
Play is also one way to build a sense of cohesion in a workplace of multi-generational employees, according to Rina Zitser, author of Playful Leadership: Simple Principles for Leading with Joy and Founder and Leadership Consultant at Manage by Play:
“Playfulness in the workplace allows one to reframe these challenges and stressful situations, and approach them as a path to growth, decreasing burnout and stress.”
This doesn’t mean managers need to kick off every meeting with a round of Parcheesi, but It might mean carving out space to discuss hobbies, weekend plans, or personal interests that will help colleagues get to know each other and discover shared interests beyond work. Zitser suggests “FUNbreaks,” which are routine playful activities that build trust and a sense of mutual belonging and purpose across the workplace.
Enhanced creativity and problem-solving
Playfulness is linked to creativity, divergent thinking, a love of learning, and a willingness to try new things. When individuals are in a play state, they are less worried about time, risk, and failure, and that can lead to improved creativity and innovative problem-solving.
This is where the concept of play can also provide a model for problem-solving and resilience. Think of children who run, play, fall down, and get back up again. A stumble isn’t the end of play but an inevitable part of the experience. When employees adopt a similar mindset, they can see failure as part of the process of pursuing meaningful work and professional growth, and they are more likely to persevere in meeting long-term goals. This means the entire organization becomes more resilient.
According to Dr. Tracy Brower in Forbes, when company culture encourages play, it is “better able to tap into the best in their employees, and employees themselves can bring more effectiveness into their work.” Brower cites research that found when teams played a collaborative video game together, they increased their productivity by 20%.
But video games aren’t required to reap these same benefits. Teams can use icebreakers, trivia, social events, or other kinds of fun and light-hearted “non-work related” activities to improve their ability to work together more effectively.
Worth noting: In her book, The Secrets to Happiness at Work, Brower also highlights how play offers employees “an interruption” from their usual responsibilities, and an “opportunity to be liberated from routine for a period of time.” This keeps employees fueled and focused, meaning more productivity overall.
Improve employee experience with the right culture.
Businesses looking to improve employee experience with play should first create an environment where employees feel safe bringing their whole selves to work.
Kirsten Anderson, Founder of Integrate Play Solutions, offers this advice: “First and foremost, you start with building psychological safety. Then, you need to make sure play is presented as an invitation, a choice.”
If employees don’t feel valued, heard, or seen in the first place, then it will be an uphill battle to inspire playfulness, which will likely feel forced or uncomfortable. No one is enthusiastic about company retreats or social hours if they were scolded just an hour prior for raising project concerns….
Bottom line: in whatever form it takes, play should be a choice, inspired by a sense of freedom and ownership over one’s work — not an obligation from the top-down.
Want to build a positive workplace culture and improve the employee experience at your company? Check out these additional resources from The Forem: