How play at work can lead to IT innovation

A playful office helps corporate problem-solving and sparks innovation

Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, explains why a playful office helps corporate problem-solving and sparks innovation

What is play, compared to brainstorming or innovating?

Play is directed by the player and you're not anxious or grinding toward some outcome. There's improvisation potential and it takes you out of time and gives pleasure. It might feel purposeless. Getting into that state opens up a lot of avenues for innovation and creativity, but incorporating play in the workplace is not always easy. It often seems antithetical to productivity and responsibility.

Why should we play at the office?

There's a sense of exploration, a search for novelty, an engagement. From these outcomes, you see increased mastery and skill, increased perseverance and lots of good byproducts--preparation for the unexpected and flexibility and adaptability when something unforeseen heads your way.

Some companies offer foosball, volleyball and other games. Is that enough?

We are all individual in terms of what is playful. For some people, foosball and volleyball would be torture. For others, it's joyful. There can be pressure to appear playful in a certain way. Better is what Google and 3M do: They have a permissive attitude about play.

They allow employees time to spend on general personal activities. They need not be physical. Read a novel, take a nap, code, volunteer, create. When employees are given an opportunity to not have someone looking over their shoulder to see what they're producing, there are payoffs, such as patent applications and new ideas. You can measure the effects in less attrition and absenteeism and in greater employee satisfaction.

What if people never play?

There are real consequences at any stage in the human lifecycle from play deprivation: mild depression, a feeling of futility about the future, a grumpy way of looking at the world, less control and emotional regulation of fear and rage. You can manipulate this in the animal world by depriving highly playful primates and rats of play. They can't deal with social nuances that require a sense of belonging.

Are there differences between physical play, play with non-electronic toys and play with electronic toys?

If it produces a sense of joy and pleasure, and is not compulsive and doesn't cause withdrawal, it's all fine. The improvisation potential, humor, joyfulness and freedom that are part of the state of play can be in the electronic world or not.

Why don't more companies encourage play?

The cultural norm says that play is trivial and it's for kids or for the weekends. That's an Industrial Revolution heritage that's tough to change. I don't think I'll see the shift in my lifetime, but the neuroscience evidence is piling up that play works. It can be really useful during a merger. Let's say the cultures are in conflict. One company ethic has been more improvisational and the other is organized around goals. If the employees play with each other, they will understand the heritage and start to look at long-term goals for the company.

Kim Nash is a senior editor for CIO Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @knash99.

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Kim S. Nash

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