The Playful Den


Nurturing playful employees – the future of job-joy

In my career I have been hired and have won work over and over again for being ‘passionate’.

Passion has opened the door for me, got people’s attention and created positive associations to both me personally and my brands. Do you know what else passion gave me – 3 mental breakdowns. Passion is lorded as one of the most desirable traits in employees and as a leader myself, it was a quality I thought was essential for doing a good job and contributing to culture. I used to think passion was the magic sauce to both being ahead of the competition and a happy employee, these days, in the context of the Great Resignation, the incessant burn out and hustle culture that’s destroying lives and relationships, well, I’m not so sure. 

Call me cynical, but I think passion is something that people take advantage of. A client who hires the passionate agency knows they they will go the extra mile, probably over deliver and do whatever it takes to deliver a great result. But what happens if that client doesn’t treat their agency kindly? What happens if they move the goalposts and make impossible demands? What if they want more for less cost and shorter deadlines? This is when they rely on that passion to get them what they want. But it comes at a cost and that cost is someone’s personal life, mental health and relationship to their work and organisation. 

Years back I came so close to making a dream hire that would have transformed a part of the business. I had been pursuing this for sometime and we were very close. After a short trial on the job an intensive client handling experience closed it down. Years I’d been working on that relationship and the ship had sailed, that hire was never happening. This person’s passion and dedication was so high, as was the love for the culture and team and it actually made it harder to hold boundaries, negotiate and say no. 

There is a lot of important and potentially transformational things being said and written about culture at the moment. I can speak from the point of view that when you lead a culture that is inclusive and empathetic, you cannot be personally responsible for people’s boundaries all the time. From my experience of hiring really fantastic, dedicated, passionate people, it can be really really challenging to get them to switch off. This period of post-pandemic adjustment is a strange one. People are still thinking, evaluating, perhaps still in a state of shock and recovery at what has happened over the past couple of years. I believe we were already in a period where people were seeking more meaning from work and then on top of that, if you’ve just had the realisation your job is ‘not critical’, it can change how you feel about it. It did for me. 

What are the options for leaders for what to do with that? I would like to make the case that playful employees are more sustainable than passionate ones. And that playful employees can nurture passion for their role where perhaps it doesn’t come naturally. 

So what is a playful employee?

Playful employees, or a culture of play within an organisation means people are invited to play at work. This means a culture whereby tasks are made enjoyable, where the stakes are lowered (reduced feelings of pressure) and where teams have a lighter relationship with the outcomes. I understand this will send fear into the veins of many leaders. And that is because we continuously misunderstand and undervalue play and fun. Being playful at work does not mean not caring or under performing. In fact quite the opposite. When we think about play in the workplace perhaps our imagination conjures up scooters in the office, an awkward team building game and a pinball machine. None of these equal a playful culture. To truly embed play into the culture play must exist within the work, not around it. That means processes should be designed with fun at the heart, meetings should be re-thought to consider how they might be more enjoyable or how they allow space for creative and free thinking (or if they’re needed at all). It means employees shouldn’t be held back by their weaknesses but encouraged to lean into what fires them up, where a career journey is not a linear box ticking progression, but a process of refinement where they are supported to do more of the stuff where they really come alive. A play based culture also means a willingness to try new things. All the time. This does not mean necessary disruption or ‘reinventing the wheel’ which is possibly one of the most overused business phrases in existence, but an acceptance that just because something worked 3 weeks ago it doesn’t mean it was perfect and shouldn’t be up for change. By unpopular opinion I actually think reinventing the wheel can be playful and lead to exciting outcomes that actually aren’t about the wheel. When we try new things, we are an amateur, we are naturally more playfully and we have to be vulnerable. We are so obsessed with expertise and being right that we get blind spots – and the same things happen when we are hyper passionate too. A playful culture also means making space for work that isn’t a ‘sprint’ or done in an hour. Something I noted in my leadership experience was the work people often really enjoyed, that made them better at their jobs, they made less time for. Tasks like reading, writing, even thinking were being squeezed out for tasks that seemed to have a more quantifiable outcome. Remember – playing is less concerned with the outcome, it’s all about the process so therefore playful employees revel in the journey and do not feel guilty or devalue parts of the process that aren’t as overtly outcome focussed. 

My passion made me outcome obsessed. I wanted the result, the big ‘yay’ moments, I craved them because I cared so much. It was inevitable that it would have a shelf-life, because it led to a never ending cycle of highs and lows – if I’d found a way to lower the stakes, get comfy and find fun in the journey, perhaps some of the side effects would have been less gnarly on me personally. 

I am currently working with corporate teams to help them embed play into their culture and the reception is fascinating. Overall I would say there is a lot of appetite for it, but it feels like we’re at early days in understanding the true meaning and application of it. I think we’ve come so far, in the corporate sector (as I can’t speak to others) with our relationship to excessive productivity and outcome, that it’s very difficult for people to step into a playstate, there is a cynicism and it really does require a leap of faith. I have a rather unique historic client portfolio which is made up of what would be described as some of the most fun brands on the planet, yet going into these organisations was often a shock to me at how un-fun they were on the inside. I recall working on a project that was about communicating and sparking fun with customers so I asked, – “how are you going about making the process of this project fun?” to which I had a short reply, “oh, make no mistake, there is absolutely no fun in this project”. If a project about actual fun can’t be fun, I seriously think we have some work to do. But fun and play aren’t only for those brands and projects that are naturally jovial. Yana Buhrer Tavanier, founder of Fine Acts coined the term Playtivism. In her brilliant Ted Talk she discusses how when working on something that has a very unplayful outcome and a dark context it does not mean that that process should hold back from fun and play. In fact her results and processes show that the more fun and playful the process the stronger the outcome. 

In business we are often understandably caught up in everything being serious. But energies are less opposing and more complimentary than what we realise. By being always in a work mode, and not a playstate, we devalue fun, enjoyment, curiosity and creativity. And in doing so we devalue people. Play is how we naturally want to be, yes even at work. Right now, work isn’t working for a lot of people and whilst we’re right to turn our attention to tangible things like flexibility, working from home, diversity, salaries and benefits etc, we also need to make sure we consider how leaders invite employees to play in their roles. This is far more likely to have a direct impact on a person’s relationship to work than some colourful beanbags, a free lunch and doing archery once a year.