The implications of set forced play spaces in work

I was listening to the Post Status podcast this week where Cory Miller and David Bisset discussed creating time for play within work. I write this not thinking they were advocating for what I disagree with, but the podcast inspired me to share my perspective.

Creating space for play absolutely resonates; we learn through play and grow as a child through it – play stages are a critical part of human development and even used in many therapeutic practices. However, I think aspects often get overlooked in the enthusiasm to create a space for play, those of cultural and wider inclusion. As a result, those spaces become exclusionary and sometimes daunting to participate in when the opposite was intended.

A set time, a set space where everyone is designated to be social, can be problematic. First up, if you have a team across timezones, someone will be suffering either bleary-eyed morning, juggling child feeding times or needing sleep. Second, culturally being told to do things by your boss can impact heavily. Even if it’s fun, you might think there’s a performance measure aspect here. Depending on your language barriers, the activity also might be incredibly stressful.

One approach to deal with time zones is to split the team or group into sub-teams to play. This is almost even worse at times. This likely sees certain people with some leads and others with none. It can make people feel they haven’t got time with some and if you regularly do playtime like this, it forces divides. I would strongly advise avoiding splitting people ever like this.

Remote work enables people, so forcing a set time to do anything can remove some benefits. What if that person has a medical condition which remote work allows them to work around, and they have a flair for that hour of designated playtime? Sure, they can miss it, but they both might then feel guilt, and they missed out on bonding or, even worse, some communication shorthand that others gain through that activity.

Another aspect to understand is what work means to many. Being able to play within work is a concept not all cultures or mindsets will find natural. If your team is diverse across timezones and types, you have to understand each person probably comes to play differently as an adult. Children are open to play; adults get more closed the older they get in many respects unless they practice it or are given space. This is shaped by their lived experiences, their type and the culture around them. You also need to have a space of trust to play; as a leader, you can assume trust where maybe others don’t feel it all the time.

Our brains have different experiences of social play. Some might have been bullied when younger, so picking teams even is a trigger point for them; imagine how they might feel if a team picking happens and gets picked last. Or if they do badly in front of their team and now get memories of that happening when they were a child. What for some are incredible social experiences aren’t for others. This needs to be considered in whatever activity takes place. Give options for participation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against play space or even designating and setting time for it for everyone. It can work in several situations very well. I actually think it should be a part of work constantly. My biggest point is that play space should become a space of exploring and also constant.

One other aspect of this is that it needs to start slowly, be earnt. I honestly think if you can start with instantly it working, that’s incredible but rare. You have to probably start by setting some boundaries, which I know goes against the idea of true play. This is about safe trust-building though, here are some recommendations:

  • Allow everyone to set the time to work for them.
  • Set themes for exploring as a leader: this removes the worry from others. Mix in a combination of work and learning a new skill.
  • Allow space for simply sharing. This is far easier for many than play and gets them learning to trust. Always give alternatives for example just saying share a book you’ve read that month and if someone struggles to read every month – that’s a worry. By saying ‘share a book, film, piece of music or something you liked this month’ – suddenly that’s less stressful.
  • Create a devoted playspace where people can share things as they create async. This lets everyone have comfort and nobody gets put on the spot in a meeting. Sharing can be the start of play and is often overlooked as a starting point – it’s a key stage in play for chidren.
  • Encourage collaborative play but find ways as a leader to make it async. If you do this right you can even combine to increase communication across roles/areas.
  • Start using play formats in meetups/workshops and retros. By incorporating play thinking closely into work practices it says to everyone that play is part of working here and welcome.
  • Always set a start and end point if you set play topics. Open and close the designated play even if async.
  • Your experience as a leader or person that sets the play won’t be the true measure, so open all your senses to others.

As people learn to trust, increased connections will be made, and likely self-organised play will happen. You should leave space for suggestions for play because that is when the magic happens when those playing start directing it.

There are various types of play; lean into those. I don’t see play just as a set time to play an online game remotely. I like this definition to start exploring a bit more:

“Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”

Johan Huizinga

Play is magic; the effects of someone realising they can safely play within work, on their terms, will be felt not only in how much better they will work but also in their improved relationships and ideas. However, it’s not something instant. The space also needs curating, tending and nurturing. Play has a lot of benefits, so it’s worth taking those considerations.


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