The working population spends nearly 70% of their days at work. We all know that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy(/girl!)’ so what can we do to make sure that employees have enough play at work?

Historically ‘play’ has been associated with children but there is a growing trend recognising the importance of play in adults. Netflix recently brought out a documentary looking at the origins of play, narrated by Idris Elba, exploring the origins and evolution of play across the globe and across age groups. The concept of play started as part of our fight-or-flight response and it’s been a part of all cultures across the world ever since – it is part of the fabric of being human.

Outside of the occasional team social, usually involving dinner and drinks, play is still generally overlooked in the workplace and largely seen as mutually exclusive (if you’re playing, you’re not working!). With significant shifts in the work landscape since the pandemic, if employers wish to improve retention levels, it’s now accepted that increasing the level of ‘play’ in day-to-day employee interactions could solve more than one current problem facing teams.

Emma Worrell the founder of The Playful Den, a play consultancy, sums up the concept of play and how it can be applied:

“Play is the state of being in flow, where we are free from pressure and goals, able to be ourselves and experiment. That might not sound like most people’s work reality, but it is possible for organisations to adjust the conditions of work so people bring more of their playfulness to it. This does not mean scattering bean bags and buying a ping pong table, but more about embedded moments of playfulness in processes and teamwork. This might be empowering people to experiment, valuing the role of fun and enjoyment in experience in how tasks are completed or ensuring that people get time to approach some challenges without being suffocated by pressure. A playful culture does not look like a group of jesters and office slides, but is more likely to appear highly engaged and immersed in their processes and readily able to find joy from being part of it.”

Why should employers increase play in the workplace?

  1. Improved mental health

The NHS look at mental wellbeing through five key pillars – connecting with people, being physically active, learning new skills, giving to others and paying attention to the present moment.

An increase in play generally leads to increased connection with people; play provides the potential for being physically active; depending on the nature of the play employees can learn new skills; and while in play employees are forced to be present in the moment, with work and life worries ideally fading temporarily into the background.

In 2022 London School Economics published a study that playing location-based games that encourage outdoor activity, face-to-face socialisation and exposure to nature may alleviate mild depression. The study findings were based on Pokemon Go, but other events such as StreetHunt Games’ gamification of city exploration were also quoted as a popular example.

  1. Addressing the reduced connection resulting from hybrid working

We’re getting close to two years since the COVID 19 restrictions ended but we’ve seen a permanent change to the working from home culture compared to pre-pandemic. Whereas working from home used to be the exception, as of May 2023, 39% of workers in Great Britain had worked from home at some point in the previous 7 days.

This reduction in face-to-face interaction at work means that employers need to find other ways to ensure their teams are connecting. Introducing elements of play into the working day can potentially reduce the risk of isolation and loneliness and may bring colleagues back together in the office or an external environment through face to face play opportunities.

In addition to the reduction in face-to-face working, we are increasingly distracted by smartphones and rely on them more and more. This over reliance risks individuals’ art of conversation and connection, so finding ways to increase such connection is vital.

  1. Cognitive benefits

It is believed that play has cognitive benefits for adults, including improved memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National institute of play was quoted as saying that “play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability and creativity…nothing fires up the brain like play.”

A BBC article in 2022 asked the question ‘Is it time we took ‘play’ more seriously?’ The article explored the reasons children play and it was explained by Sam Wass, a child psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of East London, that play helps to build connections between different parts of the brain which haven’t necessarily been connected before.

Drew Altschul, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, also discussed a study that started to research children’s behaviour in Scotland back in the 1940s. It tracked their thinking skills as they grew older. He says the research suggests playing games can help preserve brain function: “People who played more games at age 70 had a less steep decline overall in their thinking skills. We also looked at reading and writing or playing music, but they didn’t have the same effect, it was only the games.”

  1. Increased happiness and therefore productivity

There is a significant benefit to employers having happier employees with evidence from the University of Oxford indicating that happy workers are 13 per cent more productive.

For Samantha Warren, Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Portsmouth, having a “good old laugh at work seems to be the solution for everything.” She’s studied a big organisation that chose to introduce playfulness into the workplace.

Her work suggests that being playful can make businesses better with effects such as “reduced absenteeism, greater commitment, more creativity, better team building and general happiness.”

Researchers from Finland and the United Kingdom found that social laughter triggers the release of endorphins – often referred to as “feel good hormones” – in brain regions responsible for arousal and emotion. Endorphins are peptides that interact with opioid receptors in the brain to help relieve pain and trigger feelings of pleasure.

“Our results highlight that endorphin release induced by social laughter may be an important pathway that supports formation, reinforcement, and maintenance of social bonds between humans,” says study co-author Prof. Lauri Nummenmaa, of the Turku PET Centre at the University of Turku in Finland.

  1. Enables self-expression

Play provides a healthy outlet for expressing emotions and releasing pent-up energy. It allows adults to explore and express their feelings in a safe and enjoyable way.

According to the Wunderman Thompson Future 100 2023, the focus for the year was the need for uplift and play. People are looking for moments of emotional release. Brands are tapping into the cultural desire for optimism and childlike abandon by redesigning their offerings to encourage joy and play.

What practical changes can organisations make to incorporate more play into the workplace?

  1. Introduce play to team training

Learning and development are critical to a teams’ success and one way to increase employee engagement is to introduce elements of play into training and workshops.

This is a concept used by LEGO® in their LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® methodology. They run facilitated sessions, where participants are playing with LEGO and they’ve found this kind of hands-on, minds-on learning produces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities. It encourage reflection, as well as develop problem-solving skills and use of the imagination – rather than attempting to describe a challenge in words, expressing it through building bricks can offer insights that can often be subconsciously hidden.

Claire Rason who facilitates these sessions says: “introducing play into training is important if you want to create new insights and growth. Play enables us to experiment safely. The learning gained can then be used in the real world when the stakes are high. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is just one way of achieving this. It enables each participant to explore themes that they might otherwise find challenging. It breaks down hierarchies and it effortlessly brings in those voices that are often silent. Just because it is playful and fun does not mean that it is without value – that is the fundamental shift that companies need to make when they think about play.” 

  1. Bring play to team socials

Historically team socials involve dinner and a reliance on alcoholic drinks, but there has been a growing trend to increase the level of play at such events and move to activity-based team socials instead.

As reported by Raconteur, VenueScanner’s head of BSB Sophie Knight noted that they have seen a 2.5 times increase in reservations for experience and activity-based venues over the 2023 Christmas period, compared to last year.

Walters People’s UK director Janine Blacksley says: “Our polls show a real change in attitudes towards how work Christmas parties could be carried out going forward – and potentially a permanent shift in workplace culture.”

There are a number of examples of activity based team socials such as ten-pin bowling, electronic darts, crazy golf, escape rooms and outdoor scavenger hunt games. Events such as Monopoly Lifesized have substantial proportions of their business generated through corporate bookings.

  1. Ensure adequate breaks

Increased play can also be enabled through ensuring employees have time and flexibility in their working day to fit in their choice of activities. This could include playing a game of squash or tennis with a colleague or friends, a gym or dance class or a game of table tennis in the workplace.

Table tennis England have reported a growing number of businesses have table-tennis tables in the workplace and along with a number of benefits they have stated that 51% of workplace table tennis participants reported they increased their physical activity levels since playing at work. Healthy body = healthy mind!

  1. The use of technology

There is now a whole industry dedicated to providing gamification software to businesses with the aim of boosting engagement. This includes games that employees play to teach them how to become better salespeople, self-improvement training using habit tracking software and loyalty programs such as Nike have introduced gamification (for example providing virtual treasure hunts to uncover new trainer designs).

If companies are looking to improve workplace processes, gamification software may also provide an efficient solution. Wazoku, a web based workplace idea generation and innovation tool, incorporates challenges and leaderboards into such activities, facilitating play whilst looking to improve working practices/environments.

Play is not a new concept – it was a method used to appease the Gods in Roman times. The Roman Games included chariot races, gladiator contests and theatrical performances which were held in honour of Jupiter, the king of the gods.

Although not new, its role in adult society and in particular in the workplace is evolving and a likely trend in 2024 is for the importance of play for both employers and employees continuing to increase.

Annaliza Sturge - StreetHunt Games Co-Founder
Annaliza Sturge
Co-founder at StreetHunt Games | + posts

Annaliza Sturge is the Co-Founder of StreetHunt Games alongside her husband Tony Sturge. StreetHunt Games provide engaging outdoor, self-guided mysteries set around captivating locations. StreetHunt Games’ vision is to create immersive games throughout the UK and internationally, focusing on the interaction between technology and the environment. They strive to provide fun and escapism to players in the corporate team-building, dating, family and tourism markets.