The relationship between work and play in the modern workplace

Silvia Fernandez - Medium

Illustration by Silvia Fernandez

Who gets to play?

While visiting my parents some years back, I saw a couple of well-fed squirrels chasing one another furiously around a stately oak tree. They made lots of loud, chirpy squeals and bewildering, erratic movements. I asked my dad, a biosemiotics expert, what he thought they were so worked up about. “Actually,” he suggested, “they might be playing.”

With all due respect to squirrels, in that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that they spend time playing. But if you research the topic, you’ll quickly find that play behavior in animals (especially mammals) is something scientists across many fields think about. There is no shortage of documented studies on the topic.

Although much has been written about the play behavior of young animals and its utility in preparing them for adulthood, there aren’t many popular theories about the play behavior of adult animals. One that caught my eye can be found in the article “Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected by Marek Spinka, Ruth C. Newberry, and Marc Bekoff. It specifies:

“We propose that this playful switching between in-control and out-of-control elements is cognitively demanding, setting phylogenetic and ontogenetic constraints on play, and is underlain by neuroendocrinological responses that produce a complex emotional state known as “having fun.” Furthermore, we propose that play is often prompted by relatively novel or unpredictable stimuli, and is thus related to, although distinct from, exploration.”

Clearly, both animals and play are more complicated than one might suppose.

Where does work end and play begin?

Of course, plenty has been written about the importance of play for human adults. Common praise goes: Play relieves stress. It improves brain function. It stimulates creativity. Play is good for you, whether you’re young or old. Oh — and it’s the opposite of work. As one article puts it:

“Adult play is a time to forget about work and commitments, and to be social in an unstructured, creative way.”

But why should work go out the window when you are playing?

Let’s be clear — I’m not talking about those rare folks who insist that, when they are pulling together a tedious spreadsheet, they “really enjoy it.” Likewise, I’m not talking about mandatory team-building exercises or obligatory office outings to Dave & Buster’s. Maybe for some folks, that is genuinely enjoyable playtime. For others (especially introverts), it’s closer to torture. But the notion of play is really much bigger and broader than orchestrated events pointedly aimed at “not working.”

To better understand play, maybe we should go back to the squirrels. And to this previously noted quote:

“…Furthermore, we propose that play is often prompted by relatively novel or unpredictable stimuli, and is thus related to, although distinct from, exploration.”

Play isn’t the opposite of work. It’s about novelty and the unexpected. It’s cutting loose, getting out of the usual setting. It’s about allowing for and maybe even diving into the unknown, and both trusting and relishing your ability, however strong it may or may not be, to navigate the situation.

In fact, I would argue that novelty, and therefore play, is often exactly what is needed to produce better, smarter and more original work.

Inviting novelty into the workplace

Have you ever held an office job where you were expected to be at a desk for 8 or more hours a day? If so, how many of those hours would you say you spent productively “working” — versus daydreaming, mindlessly tapping away at a keyboard, staring at a blank computer screen trying to think, or simply moving things around on a page?

For many of us, work has become synonymous with sitting in front of a computer or digital device. We are challenged to be “disruptors”, creatives, bold visionaries of new ideas and strategies. In fact, many companies insist that they are looking “rebels” and pioneers — people who will bring revolutionary thinking to the fold. Yet workplaces can feel confining rather than liberating. We are asked to start a revolution while being chained to a desk.

An expression I recently heard:

“Innovation is the pirate ship that sails into the yacht club.”
Illustration by Silvia Fernandez

Assuming the yacht club symbolizes “making it” or being successful, and the pirate ship is a band of rogues who — with their outsider thinking and questionable techniques — are able to achieve that success…shouldn’t we all be playing more?

If you’re an employer…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that companies start hiring cheats and thieves:

— Hire talented employees, who love what they do and are committed to excellence and meeting deadlines.

— Trust your employees and let them arrive at scenarios (including ones outside an office setting) that promote best thinking and productivity.

— Encourage employees to bring play into the workplace and work into their play places. They’re likely already doing so, and you’d simply be condoning it.

— Ensure that employees share their work-style best practices and failures with others, while recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

— To mitigate risk, conduct work efforts and hiring on a trial basis, and collect meaningful data about those undertakings.

If you’re self employed or an employee…

— Explore working at different hours. What happens when you start working at 6am or at 6pm? When are you most productive? Are certain skills sharper at different times of day?

— Try using completely new or different tools. Put aside screens and pick up a notebook. Try out new software. Draw with crayons.

— Becoming content omnivorous. Consume news, radio, stories, podcasts etc. that you usually ignore or avoid. Intermingle the high-brow and the low-brow.

— Actively take your work problem-solving tasks with you to unsuspecting places, such as a museum, a long drive, a trip to the store, or a walk through the park. Look for unexpected parallels and correlations that apply to your job and the problems you’re trying to solve.

Take notes on what you discover (the good and the bad) from all this exposure to novelty. Chances are you will learn about yourself, including the how, what and when behind your productivity. More importantly, you will likely discover ways to cultivate original thinking into your work…and make your work far more fun and playful in the process.

Silvia Fernandez

Content strategist, UX specialist and all-around editrix