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Playful Work Design: play with your work

We often organise fun activities at work, outside of our actual work or working hours: we’ll play ping pong during breaks or organise Friday drinks, give out ice cream in summer, host sports days or have ‘ugly Christmas sweater’ days in winter. All very enjoyable, but there is much more to be gained from our work itself. Spicing up assignments reduces tension, makes dull jobs more challenging and helps keep boredom at bay, which in turn creates more flow in our work, and more enthusiasm and happiness at work. So…get started on Playful Work Design!

 “Work has everything it takes to be a great ‘experience’,” says Professor Arnold Bakker, of Erasmus University Rotterdam, who is currently collaborating with the University of Latvia on research into Playful Work Design for individuals. “We often shoot too quickly for results in our work, which we want to achieve as efficiently and effectively as possible. A better approach is to first experience the pleasure of doing the work, because it’s the doing that determines how we’ll reflect on our work. Making work more playful creates more ‘flow’ in our work and also more enthusiasm.”

Fun and challenging

Playful Work Design is ‘a behavioural approach that makes an activity more playful’, and this can occur in two ways: Agonistic, through competition, setting goals or rules; and fun, by making work enjoyable and fun. What can we do to make work more fun or challenging, and hence the overall experience that work offers more positive? Klaas-Jan Reincke, from Vivic: “Concentrate on ways to gain focus faster, on creating a ‘narrative’ for yourself – a story in your head that gives you energy –, on creating challenges for yourself, and on breaking big challenges down into smaller steps and keeping a scorecard.”


“Work has everything it takes to be a great ‘experience”


What does playful actually look like?


Level 1: Playful Work Design in your own work

You’re a window cleaner and dress up as Spiderman while cleaning office windows. Or a barista continuously creating new designs to cinnamon-sprinkle atop cappuccinos. Or perhaps you’ve seen the popular YouTube clip of a Southwest Airlines flight attendant rapping the emergency instructions to passengers. You can also apply your imagination to routine work; for example, create amusing ‘stories’ for each invoice you process. Or each week you devise new salutations and greetings for your emails, or try to give at least three compliments to people you speak with on the phone during the day. Or, before starting a difficult writing assignment, take a brisk walk to arrange your thoughts. In short, strive to find more fun in the work itself.

If you’re the competitive type, compete with yourself: try to make each presentation more visually alluring than the last. Or time how long it takes you to complete certain tedious tasks, and then think of ways to devote even less time to them. If you’re often on the road, challenge yourself to drive more fuel-efficiently. You can also keep a personal scorecard of your own customer reviews and think of ways to improve them. In short, set yourself deadlines and make them a competition. Faster, more, less, better…whatever it takes to challenge yourself!

Level 2: Playful Work Design for teams

It could well be that you’re already job crafting (exchanging tasks) in your team. Have you already gained insights into each other’s strong points, and are you making the most of them? If not, this is the first step towards having fun together. To create the requisite fun within teams, consider interchanging work and play; for instance, brainstorm during meetings, sharing knowledge or giving each other feedback. A stand-up meeting adds some physical exercise to the proceedings. Or institute a ‘focus block’: team members are not allowed to disturb each other for a few hours at a time, and punctuate the start and end of each block with amusing music.

You can also organise fun competitions within and between teams. At an employment agency, for example, anyone succeeding to fill a job placement rings a bell, prompting their colleagues to cheer. Or you can devise team challenges that run throughout the week; for instance, during one week, whenever team members speak with customers they must ask with genuine interest how the customers are doing. And you can keep score as a team, earning points for customer satisfaction, for example.

Level 3: Playful Work Design on the organisational level

Organisations can make work more playful by changing the workplace layout. Stairs become a slide (Studelta), or the team works outside on warm sunny days. Color, music and amusing details add elements of playfulness. Normal yellow post-it notes can be replaced by amusing ones featuring small hands and hearts. Gamification and VR are also fun ways to learn. An escape room is used instead of a traditional assessment (ABNAmro). Have you ever sent a file via WeTransfer.com? Puppets enthusiastically applaud when files are sent successfully. You can also apply this to (HRM) systems, giving likes and thank you’s when employees provide the requested information.

On the organisational level, sharing important KPIs can help encourage a competitive spirit, preferably in real time and in fun ways. A scoreboard or thermometer marks the daily progress. By being transparent, the organisation encourages employees to think about how they too can contribute to organisational challenges.

Making work playful doesn’t mean you’re undermining your work: you must be as productive and ideally even more productive! But what works well for one person does not necessarily work equally well for another, so take time to identify the aspects of your work that could use a work hack, and then figure out how to playfully resolve it alone or with your team.


Author: Heleen Mes