How to Win with a Culture of Play at Work

People are born to play. Even when we forget how, there is something about the best games that we manage to remember.

If your business values performance and innovation, play is by no means a waste of time. It's not an "HR thing". Innovation is the fruit of creative license met with resources and market knowledge. Creative license is the hardest to come by, but play is a great way to get the juices flowing.

Play is a gateway from healthy competition to collaboration. And collaboration makes us feel good. Even for introverts, if there is work toward a common goal in a socially comfortable setting, our belonging light turns on. 

So how do you create a culture where work gets done AND reaps all the rewards of play? 

To win with gaming, you need a to first instill a culture of play. During a project in a corporate office we attempted to gameify an engagement initiative, but it was met with minor enthusiasm. With feedback we realized this was because the object was definitely the prize and not the game.

Without the culture, there is no context for understanding or involvement. If you don’t build a context where play makes sense, then the occasional appearance of games will not work. It might be good for an afternoon, but it won't help your company.

So how to build in gaming without first having the context? 

1. Start small. Keep the stakes low. Rinse and repeat. With some observation, you'll see which natural champions of play emerge, and how play and games might become sustainable. (The last thing you need is to turn games into another task.)

2. If you want play, don't make it prize oriented. The experience should touch your employees in some other way. I love to build experiences around Daniel Pink's triad from his book Drive: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.

3. Invite playfulness to emerge. Don't force it. It might take time. Or you may have it just under the surface and it won't take much time at all. Consistency and safety with real fun will build a community of believers. Even if it is a small group to start, don't let them down. Don't fall into the trap of, "it's not enough." There are ways to measure engagement that don't require you to have overnight success.

4. Some teams will appreciate a spectacle. Others will love a quiet forum. Use Sunni Brown's "The Doodle Revolution" to inspire a form of purpose driven Pictionary. Or make it live and loud. I have seen the Family Feud format be very successful.

In Toronto, at Kensington Market I came upon an adult sized game of hopscotch, and people were hopping. Maybe 10-15 strangers standing around for no other reason than to see if they could do it and make fun of their friends. I tried it too.

What makes the difference between a successful engagement initiative and a flop?

1. Maintain the low stakes to help keep fears at bay. 

2. Fairness is important. Make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.

3. Beware of creating expectations of play. Expectations can be undermining. Saying “You get to play, only if you produce X, Y, and Z,” will NOT yield the benefits of free flow thinking and safe creative practice you are looking for. 

4. Don't squash personalities. If you are planning the game and it derails from your vision, try to go with the flow. Games are also a fun way to see people's unique perspectives emerge. 

A culture of play is essentially a generous culture. It helps contribute to work life, rather than depend on perks to compensate for a dull one. There is also some very productive vulnerability in engaging in an activity where you risk looking like a fool. 

Once you start to master it, you can use healthy play to keep in check your culture of trust and safety. Have fun!


Ambra Sultzbaugh