Why work when you can play?

DSC_3765.jpgThis article has been written by Parthajeet Sarma. He is a Chevening scholar (Oxford University), writer, award-winning innovator and entrepreneur. 15 years out of his over two decades of work experience, has been as an entrepreneur. Set up in 2003, iDream has metamorphosed to be a boutique strategic management consultancy, handholding change management in corporate organisations, by following a unique method of using ‘space’ as the starting point of innovation. His third book ‘The radically changing nature of Work, Workers & Workplaces’  released in June 2018.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on September 11, 2018

I have come to a point in life when I only do things that I like doing. One of the things I like is meeting new people. Meeting kids is far more interesting than meeting adults. When you meet kids, the introductions are so very interesting:

  • Hi, I am Jim. I would love to fly like superman.
  • Hello, I am Nikita. I am learning Taekwondo, and I cannot stop myself from practicing it on my sister.
  • Hi, I am Neil. I played football in the rains today.

There are two aspects to such introductions. Firstly it is unrestricted talk. With limited judging and censoring abilities, children speak with a free mind. They are naturally creative with their thoughts. Secondly there is always an element of play or exercise in such instructions. This indicates that creativity is interlinked with play and exercise.

As kids grow up, censorship comes in an effort to ‘fit-in’. Parents and teachers in general teach the young ones what ‘not to do’ and how ‘not to behave’. Children are taught ‘A is for apple’ instead of questioning what could be the different words that start with A. Children are taught that the sky is blue, as other hues of the sky are shunted out. This is akin to telling impressionable minds how ‘not to be creative’, and when such young minds enter the workplace, they have a lot of difficulty when forced to become creative, especially under the pressure of time. Young professionals who are given deadlines and pressurized to come up with solutions within a short time, often fail to come up with good solutions. This kind of forced linear thinking leaves no scope for the mind to look at the periphery for solutions. Far from solving problems, such candidates are often unable to define the problem accurately. Meanwhile, the self-introductions become less interesting as they reach college and quite boring when they start working. At the workplace, introductions begin to sound something like:

  • Hi, I am Jim. I am the Head of Marketing.
  • Hi, I am Nikita. I am in charge of Human Resources.
  • Hi, I am Neil. I am the Security Manager.

The childlike playfulness disappears. Putting adults in child-like mindsets help them open up their minds to opportunities, which lie in the periphery. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. The social science is out there which imply that without opportunities to play any child will become depressed, withdrawn and antisocial. One can imagine what that means for an un-playful workplace.

So play is serious business. People are at their creative best during play and are able to overcome problems and meet challenges. Play is not predictable or repetitive. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh & Carnegie Mellon have found that when people mentally prepare for a task and play with the available decision options, they activate the part of their brain which makes non-routine decisions.

Historically, play and fun has been seen as the opposite of work. As workplaces emerged as an extension of the shop floor, all that mattered was efficiency. Codified management theories and jargons developed around efficiency. Higher efficiency meant higher production. In this mindset, play and fun would appear to be adversely affecting efficiency and thereby diminish productivity. How one felt did not matter. However in the collaboration economy of today, where productivity depends on the quality of thinking, how an employee feels at work has come to the forefront.

Organizations have introduced elements in their workplaces, which allow workers to be playful. In smaller workplaces, interior designers are often asked to add basketball rings, table tennis tables, foosball tables, dart boards, mini golf, VR games, gym balls and the like. In larger campus type settings, one additionally comes across climbing walls, slides, trampolines, football, golf, jogging tracks, badminton and the likes.

However the mere introduction of elements, which allow workers to be playful, is not enough; it has to be supported by a management, which has a playful mindset. Management has to truly believe and support the fact that when an employee takes a break in the middle of his work for a quick game of table tennis, it will only boost his or her creativity at work and that he or she will be more productive. Being playful works only when workers can take play breaks without the fear of being looked down upon or worse, being castigated for it. In the absence of a change in management’s attitude, the mere addition of games may actually backfire.

I often conduct workshops on “Co-creating the future of work”. These are meant for senior management leaders, innovation leads, creative heads, tech leaders, HR leaders, architects and designers. Participants go away learning tried and tested methods on change management and organizational re-design, by using space as the starting point of innovation. Most of the learning is through ‘thinking with your hands’ exercises. The participants are at play through these exercises, playing with props, doing role-play and getting into a ‘free-state-of-mind’, which boosts their creative and learning abilities. They retain more as the visual impressions remain intact in their minds, till much after the workshop ends.