Work hard, play harder: Fun at work boosts creativity, productivity

Imagine a 9 to 5 job where you don't have to sit at a desk all day.

Google employees are paid to play beach volleyball, go bowling or scale a climbing wall; activities that take place at the search engine’s main campus in California.

At LinkedIn, employees can play foosball or ping-pong when they tire of answering emails. At Zynga, arcade games grace the hallways.

“There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation.”

— Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play

Now, other companies appear to be taking a page out of the playbook. More companies (though not enough if you ask the 'play' experts) are encouraging fun in their workplaces.

“I think there are some enlightened companies that are beginning to get this, especially companies in research and development and design,” said Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play.

Brown offers play consulting for tech and non-tech companies alike, including Whole Foods. The reason: Not only does having a playful atmosphere attract young talent, but experts say play at work can boost creativity and productivity in people of all ages.

“There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation,” Brown said.

Play can also lower your stress levels, boost your optimism, and increase your motivation to move up in a company and improve concentration and perseverance. There’s some evidence from animal studies that engaging in play opens up new neural connections in the brain, leading to greater creativity, he added.

“All sorts of creative new connections are made when you’re playing that otherwise would never be made,” Brown added.

Playing also engages the creative side of your brain. When you’re fully engaged in play, you lose some of your psychological barriers and stop censoring or editing your thoughts. This allows creative ideas to flow more freely.

It’s not just the activity of playing that encourages creativity. When companies promote play, it engenders a more lighthearted atmosphere.

Play ethic

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a global design company, said in a TED talk that creating an office in which people have the security and comfort to play and not be judged allows them to take more creative risks.

“We need to trust to play and to be creative,” Tim Brown said. The ping-pong table in the office reminds people they work in a permissive and playful environment. Putting a bunch of action figures or tactile puzzles in the center of a conference room table can automatically lighten the mood of the meetings.

But, you don’t need to have a foosball table or climbing wall to have a playful workplace.

“I tend to think of play as a state of being,” Stuart Brown said. “Play is individual, and play patterns that work for one person may not work for another. Google has been insightful because they have a whole spectrum of play opportunities so employees can find the niche that works for them."

A state of play is when you’re doing something for fun, without a goal or purpose. For some people it might be joining in an organized game of beach volleyball, for others it may be reading a book or listening to music.

“If you’re engaged in it deeply, that’s play,” he says.

If the play ethic is missing from your company, you can bring a sense of playfulness to your own work. Try to develop your imaginative side during the course of your work. “You can have playful fantasies about what you might want to do to your crummy boss,” Stuart Brown said.

You can look at the people standing in line to buy lunch and make up stories about their lives.

“Begin to have a sense of richness from your own internal thought process,” Stuart Brown said. Take mini- breaks, and think back to a time when you were more carefree, even to childhood; and visualize yourself doing something that was completely enjoyable. You may realize that something is missing from your life and re-introduce it. If you loved competitive sports, maybe you’d join a tennis league. If you loved photography, maybe you can bring your camera to work and take creative breaks."

Stuart Brown added that "if you’re good at playing on the weekend, that’s a start – but we tend to compartmentalize too much."

Work hard to bring that playful spirit into the office on Monday morning.