Play at Work: An Antidote to the Daily Grind

According to Gallup, the average full-time worker spends 47 hours a week on the clock. So ponder this for a minute: If work isn’t a fun environment, that’s an awful lot of drudgery. Perhaps the grind explains the miserly 32.6 percent of employees who are engaged in their work.

The concept of play at work isn’t new. The now-outdated company softball team used to  be a way for employees to get to know one another outside of work, which translated back into the office with better communication and collaboration. Fun also spawns creative energy and increases employee retention rates. These days, more and more companies—from Google to MasterCard—are recognizing the importance of integrating play into the workday and have taken the concept much further than softball, encouraging staff to play in a multitude of ways.

But what’s the best way to create a play ethic in the office, especially if you don’t have a Google budget or the square footage for ping-pong and foosball tables? Don’t worry. Creating a playful workplace and building camaraderie needn’t require extravagance. (And if your workforce is made up of millennials, they aren’t interested in playing ping-pong at work anyway.)

First, The Rules

1. Play is an invitation, never an obligation: It’s no fun being told to play. (If you were ever told to “go outside and play” as a kid, you know how those words can dampen the fun—at least momentarily.)

2. If you want to establish a play ethic, senior-level staff should lead by example—as they would with any other company value. Otherwise, it will be tough for employees to adopt.

Let the Games Begin
With that foundation in mind, here are a few starter ideas to bring a more playful vibe to the workplace:

Before a meeting begins, identify three or so keywords that will likely be used a few times throughout the session. (Select words appropriate to the meeting’s subject.) Then identify an action for each keyword. For example, if “fiduciary” is established as a keyword, ask everyone to laugh maniacally when it’s mentioned (i.e. muahahahah!). Or if the keyword is “team,” tell the group to high-five one another, switch seats or get up and jump. These absurd responses will bring actions to meetings, as well as ramp up the engagement level as people listen closely for the keywords.   

Collaborative Etch A Sketch
When was the last time you held an Etch A Sketch? And have you ever done a collaborative Etch A Sketch, where two people draw something in tandem, each controlling only one knob? Acquire some classic Etch A Sketches and hold a collaborative Etch A Sketch tournament: Pair people into teams and provide them with a simple drawing to mimic. Set a timer for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on complexity of the drawing, and then hold a judging round to decide on the winning team.

Fantasy Sports Leagues
New research conducted by Penisula—an HR, employment law, and health and safety consultancy in the UK—suggests that fantasy football leagues create an opportunity for employees to connect. Of 800 workers surveyed, 62 percent said that a fantasy football league boosted their morale, and 49 percent found it helped build relationships with colleagues. Fantasy sports leagues can be created for most any sport (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc.) and the “team owners” can be made up of actual company work teams who choose the athletes together and compete against other departments or teams.

Office Hide N Seek
Without telling your employees or colleagues, gather some random objects that aren’t normally found in the office (rubber chickens, bags of candy, stuffed animals, small gift certificates for coffee or books, etc.) and hide them around the office. Wait and see what happens as people discover the hidden surprises one by one.

Incorporating moments of playfulness won’t undermine the seriousness of an organization’s mission, but it can change the pace of things and encourage employees to interact in new ways.

How to Build Trust in the Workplace

In elementary school, we probably all had few teachers who said, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” And, as kids, every time we heard that line, there was a collective eye roll. But in spite of the inherent snarkiness of adolescence, the point was made: No one deserves to be ridiculed for being curious. It’s a good rule. And it’s one way that teachers create what’s known as psychological safety in their classrooms. The intent is to foster a space where students can feel confident that no one will embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up.

As adults, psychological safety is equally important, especially in the workplace. No one should be ridiculed for thinking, even if the logic is faulty. Bad ideas, like dumb questions, are part of the creative process. Without bad ideas, good ideas would be scarce. As the great American scientist Linus Pauling once said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

Google’s Research
Google, in a quest to build the perfect team,
studied the dynamics of various groups and found that psychological safety is actual critical to a team’s productivity and success. Unfortunately, they also discovered that there’s no simple recipe for nurturing psychological safety within a team. Unlike grade school, it’s not as easy as authoritatively announcing “There’s no such thing as a dumb idea” to generate an accepting atmosphere.

But Google found that honest personal interactions—ones that go beyond small talk, work and the not-always-100-percent-authentic professional persona—help create stronger bonds within working teams. Like any personal relationship, sharing real-life concerns builds trust. And if we trust the people around us, we aren’t as afraid to take risks in front of them.

Herein lies the core of what we do at The Go Game. We strive to design activities that move people beyond office conversation and work personalities. We’ve noticed that if we edge individuals a little beyond their comfort zones, especially while working together, they’ll see a new side of their fellow team members, one that’s more personal and real, one they’re able to more genuinely trust and respect—two key components in any healthy relationship.

How to Help Build Psychological Safety at Work
Of course it’s not every day that an organization can commit the time needed for an off-site team-building experience, so what can be done routinely in the workplace to foster psychological safety?

Bucket Lists
One way to gain new insight into someone is to learn about his or her personal life goals. Encourage people to post (either on an intranet or a bulletin board in the office, something everyone can access) a short list of five things they hope to do someday. These goals might range from visiting a castle in Scotland or reading The Brothers Karamazov to sky diving or learning how to bake bread. Discovering the dreams of others, encouraging our colleagues to pursue them and watching as things get ticked off the list can create ongoing conversations that delve into the personal without being awkward.

The Family Style Meal
Researchers have found that sharing a meal can create a special kind of camaraderie. A recent study focused on firefighters who prepare and share meals together at work. The firefighters reported that this tradition helps their teams operate together effectively and that sharing food makes them feel like a family. This research could translate easily into any office environment by implementing a shared lunch periodically. Ideally, it’s a meal prepared on site together, served family style and eaten together. But, if the office lacks a kitchen, try starting a lunch club—where members take turns selecting where to go—or hosting a potluck lunch at the office, where each person contributes a dish that would, hopefully, stretch people beyond their normal eating habits and generate an atmosphere similar to what the firefighters experience for a new kind of camaraderie.

The better we understand and know someone, the more likely we are to find common ground and be able to trust him or her, be supportive and enjoy working together in a collaborative way.

Play: As Universal and Far-Reaching as the Internet

The internet changed everything. The world gained global access to ever-growing sources of information (both real and false), commerce (both legit and scammy), platforms for socializing and endless entertainment. At The Go Game, what we’ve appreciated most—well, aside from hundreds of hours of delightful cat videos and dazzling memes—is seeing that play is truly universal.

Play is the undisputed universal language of childhood. (If you’re unfamiliar with this phenomenon, grab a nearby toddler and take him or her to a playground anywhere on the planet. It won’t take long before the tots are all playing together.) But, sadly, as adults we play less often. That’s not to say that our natural inclination to connect through play ends
at an arbitrary age; we retain an inclination and ability to play at any age, regardless of nationality. We work all over the world and can testify that play is as far-reaching as the internet.

Cosmina Pacurar, our game producer in Romania, is involved with our team-building efforts in Europe, Eurasia and South Asia. She recently worked with a group of upper-level management mostly in their 50s at a telecommunications company who wanted to play The Classic Go Game, a scavenger hunt that combines creativity with spy-style missions, in a remote mountainous region in Pakistan.

Unlike most Americans, who clamor for selfies and video shenanigans, this group was a little camera shy. They requested missions that wouldn’t make them look too silly, objectives that would reinforce their company values and simple instructions because not everyone was fluent in English. Fair enough. We customized the game, tailoring the language, promoting specific values and making the missions more serious (while still including The Go Game’s notorious humor and playfulness).

Wherever we go, it usually takes 10 or 15 minutes before people relax and start enjoying the fun—much like new kids on a playground—and this group was no different. Shortly after the game began, the participants’ innate instincts to play kicked in. With missions based on iconic landmarks, artworks and historical events (familiar to most everyone, thanks to the internet), The Classic Go Game is inclusive for everyone, regardless of culture, age or religion. Of course new interpretations of the challenges sometimes emerge in international locations, but if there’s an ostrich or horse nearby, who wouldn’t use it as a prop?

Team Building and Recreation: Two Different Beasts

Far be it for us to stand in the way of fun, whatever the form, but we’ve noticed a trend lately: Some organizations are blurring the line between team building and recreation. Most corporate adventures pursued under the guise of team building sound ridiculously fun—excursions that include bungee jumping, paintball, GoKart racing, rock climbing and so on. And while we whole-heartedly approve of the spirit of these exploits, there is a key distinction between recreation and team building.

If it helps, think of the difference between flowers and trees: Both are plants, but only one provides shade. Similarly, recreation and team building are both fun, but only one offers challenges specifically designed to help teams work together toward a common goal.

Toward that end, team-building activities usually include elements that combine problem solving, delegation and communication. The same cannot be said for skydiving, white water rafting or heliskiing, where a hired guide makes all of the important decisions (thankfully). Granted, team building sometimes includes recreational activities (some trees also bloom, right?), but the two are fundamentally different.

Don’t get us wrong: We endorse play in most any fashion. Recreating with colleagues is an opportunity to drop the work façade and get to know people better, even if it’s just for a round of golf after work. If a company can afford extracurricular recreational pursuits, it’s a grand idea. Recreation recharges the batteries—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our only suggestion is to allocate funds toward team building separately from recreation.

If you want to identify the goals and approach team building strategically, here are 10 suggestions to help make the magic happen.

Tips for Event Planners: What Nobody Else Told You

Planning a successful group event entails marrying magic with pragmatism and shepherding chaos into calm. It’s not easy and, consequently, some events go more smoothly than others. After 10 years of experience as expert event planners, we have a unique perspective and know what works. We compiled this list to help eliminate the most common mistakes event planners make.

Do your homework. Regardless of whether you need caterers, entertainers or team-building specialists, vet each vendor carefully.
The time you spend up front will save you anguish later. Read online reviews and contact at least one other company who has worked with the vendor directly to inquire about their performance.

Be sure you understand each vendor’s offerings and that your expectations are aligned before signing a contract.

Now comes the easy part: Let it go. If you hired a guy to make BBQ for 350 people, he knows what to do and what he needs. If you’ve done your homework well, you can trust that your vendors are experts in their crafts.

Promote the upcoming event internally, and consider these tips. (Note that 3-5 are specific to team-building events.)

  1. Top Down Buy In: If leaders in the organization don’t take it seriously, then others won’t.
  2. The Hype Machine: Tease it out ahead of time, but remember that a little mystery goes a long way. Share enough to create intrigue, but don’t give away every juicy detail of what’s to come.
  3. Costumes are Good: Designate colors or themes for each team. Will Team Purple triumph over Team Green?
  4. Pre-Game Competition: Pump up the natural competiveness of certain people or departments. Would anyone care to make a small wager on the marketing department?
  5. Prizes: If you feel compelled to gather a few prizes, go for it. Gift certificates are good, but keep the value small. If a prize is too big, it becomes the focus and dampens the fun. A $15 or $20 voucher at a local coffee house, sock store or novelty shop is perfect.

The Golden Rule of event planning is that everything takes longer than you think. Toward that end:

  1. Build extra time into the schedule, and keep the timeline loose. Expect to start a little late, and remember that it’s always better to end sooner than people expect than to ask them to remain longer than expected.
  2. Recognize that transportation is a bottleneck, so keep travel distances as short as possible. Once you get people to a site, try to organize everything around that location, as opposed to multiple places.
  3. Allow for free time for play or socializing between events.
  4. If people are hungry or uncomfortable, they don’t have fun. Provide water, food and, if it’s an outdoor event, sunscreen.
  5. It’s easier to cut something than it is to spontaneously fill time. Create a best-case scenario (if all goes according to schedule) and a worst-case scenario (what to cut and change if something goes amiss).

Final Tip
Be sure to acknowledge all of the other people who help organize the event. Appreciation is one of the keys to building and maintaining long-lasting relationships of any kind.

Case Study: Wells Fargo Team Takes a Breath Together

The key to a successful corporate reorganization consists of two elements in equal parts: seamless implementation and team member support of the initiative. Without the latter, a company risks investing time, energy and resources into a process that may not be adopted smoothly.

So after an ambitious reorganization effort to centralize its marketing operations, Wells Fargo recognized that each team within its marketing department needed an offsite to learn about moving forward and to help team members coalesce and rally around the new marketing organization.

With 21 employees scattered throughout multiple states—from California to North Carolina—the leaders from Wells Fargo Integrated Brand Marketing team saw the offsite as an opportunity to bring everyone together to cover both procedural changes (i.e. how new campaigns would run) and unite as a team. In particular, the organizers wanted a team-building activity that focused on mindfulness.

Larissa Acosta, segment marketing leader and one of the organizers, suggested the Slow Game as a way to close the event. But Acosta, who is new to her team, didn’t mention mindfulness to the group. Instead, she leveraged their curiosity to maintain momentum into the afternoon of the offsite’s second day. And after a morning of laborious workshops, the Slow Game began.

Acosta said, “Once we got through opening exercises, it was clear to me that it was going to work. From the way people were responding to the warm-up exercises, I knew they were having fun.”

The opportunity to set aside work for a few hours revealed new insights about everyone. “Being engaged in something that has nothing to do with your job and is focused on connection with the missions and the people on the team—that’s priceless,” explained Acosta. She recalled, “People talked a lot about the opportunity to get to know everyone better because we don’t all work together. There were some surprises as far as how some people responded to the missions, and new personality traits came to light.”

Afterward, the feedback was that it was refreshing to be outside and fun to do a team-building activity that was fresh, creative and unexpected. With mindfulness, the concept of the “beginners mind”—experiencing events as if for the first time—was especially welcome because of its rarity in finance where world experience is so highly valued.

We asked Acosta if she thought this exposure to mindfulness would have a long-term impact on her team, and she pointed out, “You just need to open the door for people, as far as what else is out there in how we perceive the world, perceive our day to day and the people you interact with. As long as you crack open that door and people have exposure to what is possible, the seeds will grow over time.”

Team Building: Where Everyone is the Beloved Underdog

During this year’s suspense-filled World Series, many people experienced the joy of cheering for a team who, seemingly against the odds, might win. This phenomenon is called “the underdog effect,” and psychologists have documented it, running tests where people overwhelmingly choose to support the team least likely to win.

Theories abound, both scientific and anecdotal, as to why this fascination with the underdog prevails. One theory is that spectators like games that aren’t lopsided, so they root for the loosing team in hopes of seeing the score balance and suspense build. (No matter if you’re a Cubs or Indians fan, weren’t you just a tiny bit thrilled to see the World Series go to the seventh game with extra innings?) Plus, because there’s little at stake with a team prescribed to lose, a win feels all the more triumphant. And a loss? Meh. It was to be expected.

Another explanation for rooting for the underdog is the possibility of schadenfreude, the perverse pleasure we sometimes derive from the misfortunes of others. (If you think you’re a saint, take a second to recall if you ever wished something horrible to befall an evil boss or an ex after a bad breakup.) Sometimes it’s reassuring to think that giants can fall, so the schadenfreude theory says that people support the underdog simply because there might be a chance to watch (with glee!) as a powerhouse team fails.

But one theory that we see missing from the pile is the exact opposite of schadenfreude. We all know what it feels like to lose. We’ve all been the underdog at something at some point in life—on the playground, on a sports team, at a job or maybe in romance. If Michael Phelps challenged Michael Jordan to few laps in the pool, odds are that Jordan would loose badly. Nobody, not even MJ, is great at everything. We can empathize with the underdog.

As game producers, we appreciate experiences that create underdog situations, but with a twist: We want everyone to experience being an underdog. We want to get Phelps out of the pool and Jordon off the court. Once they’re both in unfamiliar territory, things get more interesting.

When designing a team-building event, we ask ourselves a series of questions: How can we create experiences that help people move safely past their comfort zones? Is it possible to push the boundaries for everyone in a group simultaneously? Or can the positions of power shift unexpectedly during play?

Because we create challenges that demand different kinds of intelligence, every person on a team gets the opportunity to shine and experience a heroic moment. And by leveling the playing field, our games offer people the opportunity to see their colleagues’ strengths in a new way.  

It’s a recipe like the 2016 World Series with alternating underdogs and tons of suspense. It’s an opportunity for people to work together and discover strengths as both individuals and as teams, a place where something unexpected could turn the tables for a win. And a place where everybody loves—and is, temporarily—an underdog.