I was listening to my kids playing on the trampoline the other day (to be honest I was in my shed hiding from them waiting for the inevitable tears — it’s where I go for peace and quiet!) and I listened to a ten year old and a four year old negotiate how to take turns winning and still have lots of fun together. They were playing a game of their own making (a perplexing combination of wrestling, magic spells and ‘special moves’ from the video game ‘Streetfighter’) where the rules were fluid and the boundaries fuzzy at best.

Although usually a recipe for disaster what I heard made me proud of the people they were becoming and the life skills they were learning by playing together ‘nicely’ — ish. Calls of ‘foul play’ were settled with a reiteration of the rules, establishment of where they were contravened, followed by actions to rectify and redress. The power struggles were real, as were the hurt feelings — but each of my cherubs seemed to realise that ‘packing a sad and leaving the game’ would result in them both losing, so they found ways for them both to win.

FACT: Playing engenders goodwill and good negotiation skills

It strikes me that business owners could learn a lot from listening to kids play. If they made their environments more fun then:

  • Their workers would play together while they work
  • There would be more goodwill generated
  • The negotiation skills of the whole team would improve
  • Their ability to communicate with each other would increase
  • Collective problem solving would improve as a result
  • Productivity would go up

Productivity = profitability, and that’s what every business owner wants — more return on the investment of their blood, sweat and tears. More return on their investment and the sacrifices they’ve made for the business — and what easier way to achieve that ROI than through play?

Working environments where the staff ‘play together while they work’ have been shown to be more effective, more creative and hugely productive working environments. Google’s offices are famous for being more like adult playgrounds than offices. They make no secret of the fact that they attribute a lot of their ability to ‘stay on top’ to how creative their people can be at work, and they support that creativity through the environment they provide for those workers.

Now I’m not saying we all need to replace the office chairs with bean bags but it occurs to me that friendly competitions (which aren’t just disguised sales targets), competitions that sit outside of ‘normal productive work’ engineer productive competitiveness without the politics that goes along with competing IN the working environment.

  • Activities that involve teams, helps workers communicate better by being forced to work together for a common goal
  • Problem solving activities hone negotiation skills as each worker puts their idea forward and (for the good of the team) has to incorporate the best of their ideas with the best of their workers
  • Last but not least Leadership development is a big winner. When you take people out of the their ‘normal hierarchical structure’ working towards a non-work related goal you often see the most unexpected leaders step forward and shine

Throughout my career I’ve worked in many environments and it’s not a coincidence that the highest performing ones were those where there were friendly competitions amongst the workers.

At one of my employers in London the UEFA football office competition bought the whole office to a standstill for 2 hours on a Friday afternoon while everyone confirmed their teams for the weekend’s games — even those (like me) who couldn’t articulate the off-side rule (and still can’t) got swept up in the comradery and excitement of who might be taking home the cookie jar on Monday (the winnings were kept in a cookie jar). One of the Directors of the business harrumphed about the wasted productivity time and tried to insist it was done outside of working hours — but the GM saw the value in it and fought to let us have our fun. The GM saw the frenzied ‘non-productive’ activity as the cultural glue that helped keep us working together as a high performing team during the rest of the week.

It’s not something that’s easily manufactured — and I’ve seen some ‘management initiatives’ aimed at creating the goodwill and skills mentioned above fall flatter than pancakes on Shrove Tuesday! Usually because they are seen as ‘one-offs & manufactured’ instead of ‘ongoing & spontaneous’, however when you allow your people (and let them know they’re allowed) to have fun at work the benefits are literally incalculable (including other benefits like reduced staff turnover and increase creativity).

I implore all leaders, managers and bosses out there to reframe play at work as not only a ‘good thing’ but as an ‘essential thing’ when looking to maximise the potential of their business.

Pub quiz anyone?

Kate Taylor is a leading personal coach and business mentor based in New Zealand.

She has also launched a virtual coaching programme for women called “KILLING IT (a girl’s guide to KICKING ASS in her career and life)”… available from www.thatabstractcat.com

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on October 23, 2016.