Six ways to make your workplace more fun – and the serious reasons for having a laugh on the job

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Humans are social creatures. Our DNA is genetically hardwired to spend time in communities, working with others to solve problems, to be creative and to learn.

It’s what has enabled us to dominate the world as the most successful organism to have ever existed. Our ability to socialise is our superpower.

The working population spends some 70% of their days ‘on the job’, so our working environment and relationships we have there are incredibly important to our wellbeing. Strong social connections in the workplace make people happier and physically healthier, which translates into work performance.  Play is an essential psychological need for us to achieve this.

Play fosters a sense of community and transforms the workplace into a safe space where employees feel included, otherwise known as a prosocial environment. To learn more, I’ve attended several INNOPLAY sessions at The Playful University. Founded by Maarten Koeners, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health, and Adam Lusby, its Faculty Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Education. Both Maarten and Adam are big believers that play and the creation of environments that encourage social interactions can positively and palpably change the energy in a room, and I couldn’t agree more. So, how can we do this?  Here are my top six recommendations.

Be prosocial

To learn, human beings need to play. In fact, it isn’t just to learn – we’re so hard wired to play that if we don’t, we can become ill. So fundamental it is to our productivity, our health, and our ability to grow, we must make the environment in which we work prosocial, providing the opportunity to socialise and play with colleagues in a way that supports us and the work that we want to achieve. The acceptance of, and the surrender to, non-social practices can be less obvious than antisocial, and can be a silent killer when it comes to workplace connections, wellbeing, and creativity.

Following a socially limited three years, we’ve developed some very non-social practices that are having serious impacts across society. They’re especially acute at work, where they’re becoming a productivity killer.

If you are in a workplace right now, how social is it?  Are you sat in rows of desks behind screens? Are you in a meeting room or office shut off from colleagues? How much social interaction do you enjoy, or is it discouraged because it takes you away from a task or task that requires your utmost concentration?

If you work in an office, it’s likely that you’re in a very antisocial working environment dominated by online meetings, home working, and management practices that encourage you to be silent and concentrate.  It’s the type of environment that we enter, age four years, when we start school, and it conditions us from then on. You’re told to sit still at rows of desks with little communication, the older you get the less interaction is built in or even encouraged.

Embrace playfulness – even if it feels uncomfortable

Play is recognised as both a fundamental part of the human experience and basic biological need at every stage in life.And whilst play and work may appear contradictory, there are many synergies. Children are encouraged to learn through play – it’s proven to expand physical and mental ability – and business leaders should be placing a similar focus on supporting their employees to discover new ideas and learning experiences, even if it does feel uncomfortable.

We know that humour, playfulness, laughter, and joy are essential to using our brains entirely.  The success of playfulness at work comes down to psychological safety and the shared belief that it’s okay to take interpersonal risks as a group – whether that’s sharing creative ideas or speaking up when there’s an issue.

As with all workplace initiatives, playfulness needs to start at the top with senior buy-in. As a leader you should be leading from the front, even if you feel uncomfortable too. But such discomfort should be embraced. Society is averse to the uncomfortable but creating new – and maintaining existing – connections always requires a certain level of discomfort at some points. By lowering the stakes, play provides an environment where we can practice how we deal with it and a space where it can be shared and celebrated.

According to pioneer play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith, the opposite of play is depression, and it was Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, whose studies confirmed that depression and anxiety can be caused by ‘play deficit,’ in adults as much as in children. Just as sleep deprivation leads to ill health, so play deficiency can lead to mental illness. Play deficit is a serious problem, so let’s make sure our employees aren’t at risk and provide plenty of opportunity for it.

Don’t force playfulness – but a kind nudge is fine!

Forcing playfulness is a killer. Don’t make it happen, but feel free to give it a kind nudge, if required, as it builds on embracing the uncomfortable – disrupting the status quo or reminding us that we are, in fact, prosocial and playful apes.

A nudge towards playfulness can be making resources available, or through intentional and kind social pressure – a good reason for those who’d prefer to remain mostly remote to re-join their colleagues. The smartest business leaders are those working to identify the types of ‘fun’ their employees enjoy – the things they’ll show up for because they want to, not because their arms are being twisted.

And whilst there are many definitions of play, it should always be activities that are enjoyable, that push boundaries, that are chosen freely and that encourage our imaginations to be drawn upon with social interaction. It can be meetings, parties, activities, and games that rest your focus, make you feel refreshed, at ease and connected. Use music to get in a positive or reinvigorated state, create rituals, and a more comfortable atmosphere; use different type of “prototyping” materials to test ideas.

It can be planned and unplanned, formal, and informal. But crucially, fun cannot be forced. It’s got to be no guilt; no obligation and the option must be given to opt out. It’s this kind of get-together has the most positive impact.

 Make workspaces flexible

Put desks on wheels – in fact, put everything on wheels so it can be moved around to suit our exact changing needs. This allows the office to be created by employees each day – facilitating greater collaboration and an emphasis on teamwork that’s often required to deliver short-term projects in temporary settings.

Using flexible furniture to switch energy, create focus or change communication is just one technique.  Also consider how we can intentionally create spaces and environments that encourage desired and prosocial behaviours of working. Use the floor for embracing informality and creating natural relaxation and go outdoors to energise and create different perspective.

Also consider resources and how new and more effective ways of working can be enjoyed through engaging multi-sensory materials and media, which strengthen connections and belonging.

Get people into the office some of the time

Lots of employees remain reluctant to return to the office and several reports have recently been published, highlighting the damaging consequences of its mandate. So, I believe it’s important that business leaders ask themselves what the office is now for. It remains an important aspect of working life, but today its function is fundamentally different to just a few years ago.

To entice staff back to the office, business leaders need to consider how they can make onsite working better than remote working. It’s difficult to socialise properly online and is much more enjoyable and healthier in person. Everyone needs human connection, so make the office a social and enjoyable place to bring colleagues together.

Build purpose and connections

The most successful workplaces are where colleagues aren’t just co-workers, but rather collaborators, united by a shared vision. It’s these organisations that are more likely to achieve higher levels of employee engagement and satisfaction, leading to increased productivity and creativity. It’s another reason why a company’s culture is so important, and why we should hire with culture fit and add in mind. This means that you not only attract like-minded colleagues to your business – you also retain them by providing a purpose that goes far beyond the pay slip.

By collaborating with those who share your passion and purpose, you’re also able to forge stronger and more genuine bonds that enrich the work experience and open doors to new opportunities. When we work alongside others who share our values and purpose, work becomes more than just a job – it becomes a source of joy and fulfilment. And it’s proven that those employees who feel this sense of purpose are more likely to stay with their company long-term and are more engaged in their roles.

To quote Simon Sinek, the leadership expert and author of multiple best-sellers,” the goal is not to work hard, play hard, but to make work and play indistinguishable.” I think that’s an ambition for us all to aim for.

Tyler Grange employees over 100 people across its seven-strong UK office network. It’s a member of the Better Business Network and supports the Better Business Act – both of which promote a cleaner, greener, fairer future for all.

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