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Play that pays

Gretchen Huestis
Managing Consultant
Ketchum Change

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Gretchen Huestis from Ketchum Change talks about why play with purpose is becoming the secret weapon of the successful modern enterprise

In today’s business world, the companies that encourage play at work will have the competitive advantage. This is not only true for Google; other companies outside the tech industry are also seeing the benefits of play at work. The Department of Work and Pensions in the UK saved $41 million by having employees trade ideas via an online ‘game’ platform to foster innovation, and Deloitte saw employees complete online training courses 50% faster after gamifying their learning platform.

Play is an effective motivational tool because it speaks to our psychological need to be recognised, or give feedback, without the risk of being criticised. When we play, we are free to fail, and are motivated by the potential of experiencing the positive feeling we get from accomplishing a specific task. The act of playing also forces us to socially engage and, in many cases, gain the trust of a teammate, which explains why employees that play together, stick together.

Companies that encourage play at work have competitive advantage

Gamification is a powerful tool for introducing structured play at work, with 70% of Global 2000 companies planning to use a gaming application to stimulate innovation by 2014. The idea is to set achievable challenges that increase in difficulty as each task is completed to stimulate learning. Another popular approach to fostering play is through office design. Pixar does this with its studios blending art and science, catering to the interests of different employees. After recognising that the best meetings were those that happened spontaneously in the hallway, the entire layout was designed to foster these ‘forced collisions of people’.

All of these approaches ultimately get employees to enter a state of ‘flow’, where they are focused on accomplishing a task and nothing else. In reality, they are working — but in a structured, focused and fun way.


So how do you use play to get the most out of your employees?

At Ketchum, we recommend creating a Play Manifesto that outlines your organisation’s approach to play. Here are a few ideas:

Go back in your play history to go forward

Encourage employees to think of their childhood — which types of play did they enjoy: object play, imaginative play, social play? Emphasise that no form is more important than another. Then allow them to find ways in which their preferred play option could be done in the workplace.

Give permission to play

Encourage the learning of new things and willingness to be learning again.

Move — be active

Allow employees space for movement and freedom to get out of the office, work standing, etc.

Free the organisation from fear

Children create ‘secret spaces’ where they feel safe, freeing them to imagine new and different ways of doing things. Work actively to alleviate fear in the organisation and foster ‘safe spaces’.

Practise play and reward those who nourish it

Provide an environment where people can easily practise their preferred form of play. Watch out for ‘play killers’ in the organisation and help them see their impact and shift their behaviour.

Make clear the purpose of play for your organisation

Be explicit about the benefits — greater trust, more nimble, greater innovation — and tie that to the organisational strategy.

Get leaders visible on the playground

Encourage the top leadership to role model play. Leading by example will crush the notion that play is childish and silly, and focus employees on how play can really make a difference to the business.

Unfortunately, some businesses still discourage play in the office, believing that it is the opposite of work. Dr Stuart Brown, a renowned American psychiatrist and author of Play, says that the opposite of work is actually depression.

Play with purpose brings people together to trust, create and grow, and the companies that understand this are proving to be the innovation leaders of our time.

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