Building a Corporate Culture with Play at the Core

January 18, 2019

Play in the workplace

Organizational culture is the sum of the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique psychological and social environment of an organization. Play permeates our culture at Playworks, which I believe has helped us navigate challenges and opportunities over the past 22 years.

Our organization partners with elementary schools to build healthy school cultures through play, and this year we will reach 1.25 million kids through our efforts. Researchers have closely evaluated our impact and play’s extraordinary ability to bring out the best in kids. Less visible is how play brings out the best in our staff.

The same programming that we bring to kids—the emphasis on play as a tool for promoting trust and rapport—is an important part of how the Playworks staff interacts. Getting out from behind our screens to play together helps us practice greater empathy, better understand our peers, and sharpen our social and emotional skills, such as conflict resolution and collaboration. That’s exactly what play does for children.

“It Pays to Play,” a report by BrightHR, explores the benefits of corporate play in a three-generation workforce and how having fun trickles down to productivity. The study revealed that playing at work not only motivates individuals as they feel a greater sense of purpose in their companies but also strengthens skills and teamwork, decreases stress, positively transforms office morale, and creates a baseline of emotional safety, all of which collectively helps to drive efficiency.

Corporate social responsibility is shifting

The 21st-century civil rights movement is changing corporate social responsibility. Not only are companies taking a stand on societal issues, such as climate change, sexual harassment, gender pay equality, and gun violence, but they’re now refocusing on the health and well-being of the heart and soul of their brands—their employees.

Studies show that employees who feel valued are more productive and work better together. And companies that authentically support their employees’ professional, social, and emotional needs have higher retention rates. According to a recent survey Playworks commissioned on behalf of US Bank with adults not affiliated with either brand, 98% of participants think play is valuable for adults, as play increases physical activity, brings people together, gives individuals a brain break, and fosters creativity. The survey revealed that nearly two in five Americans say they would ideally like to participate in active play at least once a day, but 38% report financial stress prevents them from engaging in playful activities.

At Playworks, we walk our talk. As the president, I am aware that how I show up to play has an enormous impact on how I am received as a leader. Our staff watches how I pay attention, how I work with our teams, and how I handle mistakes. Through playing, our leadership is able to articulate and model our organization’s expectations, philosophies, and values.

Playing in the workplace

We start every meeting with a random question. Check-in questions—such as “What was the first concert you attended?” or “What celebrity would you be friends with and why?”—remind us of our shared humanity and the three-dimensional nature of our lives. They give individuals opportunities to practice sharing and presenting to teams. Throughout meetings, we facilitate playful improvisation activities to foster collaboration and creativity. This enhances the brainstorming process and ultimately allows us to problem solve, develop, and test ideas in a safe, healthy, and engaging way.

Our Corporate Playbook offers examples of office games in four categories:

  • Icebreakers are effective and fun ways to quickly build community among co-workers (example: check-in questions)
  • Minute moves and energizers are short, simple games that energize the office (examples: Indoor Marco Polo and Hot Potato)
  • Cooperative indoor games provide great opportunities for team building and having fun (examples: Tic-Tac-Toe Toss and Charades Relay)
  • Cooperative outdoor games allow staff to get some fresh air and take a work break (examples: Sardines and Relay Lock Race)

Remember that playing must be safe and engaging for all. Modify games so that everyone feels welcome to participate. Leverage competition as a healthy way to reinforce working toward shared goals and encourage others not to give up and to do their best, win or lose. Doing so not only enhances your organization but will be a lot of fun in the process.

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As a collaborative leader, you can break down silos, energize your team, and inspire optimal performance.

About The Author

Elizabeth Cushing is the president of Playworks, the leading national nonprofit leveraging the power of play to transform children’s social and emotional health.

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