Playing at Work

Playing at Work

“All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.”

The proverb which Jack Nicholson pounds repeatedly on his typewriter in Kubrick’s The Shining, chillingly articulates the common perception that work and play are opposites. While a healthy body and mind requires a balance of productive, meaningful work, and frivolous fun play, it is generally understood they shouldn’t happen at the same time. Work is work and play is play and clearly Jack is not doing enough of either!

This misconception of work and play as binaries, stems from a deep-seated belief that play is child’s ‘work’ and that for adults engaged in ‘real’ work, there is no need, or time, for play. As adults we don’t necessarily stop playing, but play is usually separated from work and contained to specific rule and time-bound, outcome-focused; activities, sports, hobbies, games and creative pursuits. We heed to Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum; “When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.” *

This post for the Centre for Workplace Leadership argues to the contrary. Leaving playfulness outside the office is an opportunity lost to both the individual and the organisation.

We all at some stage have experienced strange ‘twilight zone’ glimpses of play infiltrating the workspace. I refer to ‘Parallel Play activities’ such as the now ubiquitous techy start-up table-tennis table,  the game of Patience disappearing a millisecond too slowly from a colleague’s screen, a boss’s embarrassing impromptu robot dance. Then there are the misguided attempts at integrating play and work to boost morale and productivity such as: trust and team-building exercises, paintball skirmishes, excruciating ice-breakers, free-range blue-sky ‘no-such-thing-as-a bad-idea’ brainstorming sessions, consuming forests of butchers’ paper and oceans of good will, quicker than you can say ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. Or there is workplace politics with people playing ‘House of Cards-esque’games to get themselves the corner office, or removed from the dishwashing roster.

Our perception of play at work as frivolous, a distraction at best or even manipulatively Machievellian at worst, is unfortunate. Rather, effectively integrating play into work, creating a culture where people are encouraged to bring along their playful selves and to be ‘purposefully playful’, is not just desirable for creating a positive work culture, it is essential for enabling organisations to innovate, navigate and thrive in increasingly volatile, complex, and ambiguous environments. As psychiatrist, author and founder of the National Institute of Play, Stuart Brown puts it; “In the long run, work does not work, without play.”

What do we mean by play? Johan Huizinga, the Godfather of Play Scholarship, in his seminal “Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture” (1949), defines play as;

“…a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

Stanford Professor James G March, founder of: ‘Organization Theory’ and author of the delightfully entitled, “Technology of Foolishness.”(1971), perhaps more usefully defines playfulness as a disposition rather than an activity, stating:

“Playfulness is the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules, in order to explore the possibility of alternative rules. When we are playful, we challenge the necessity of consistency. In effect we announce, in advance, our rejection of the usual objections to behaviour that do not fit the standard model of intelligence.”

This notion of playfulness as the opportunity to operate for periods in an ‘alternative reality’ to step outside of the day-to-day but then to return to it, allowing us to explore new ways of thinking and doing , holds the most relevance for the contemporary workplace.

To understand the real power of playfulness, one needs to consult expert practitioners, not theorists. Children are play geniuses. They are capable of meaningful and logical conversations with Siri. They can turn a three-course meal into a three-ringed circus. When they are playing, children are fully absorbed. Time is not of the essence; while playing, children are in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls, ‘a state of flow’. We must retain this as working adults. As George Bernard Shaw quipped:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Who wouldn’t want to work ‘in the zone’, being productive, creative, and so absorbed as not to notice time passing? But play isn’t just about making us feel good. Play incites creativity, productivity, experimentation, discovery, leads to innovation and helps us make sense of the world; all critical for the future of work. Dan Pink points out that play, is one of the six senses, essential for people to succeed in what he calls our current ‘conceptual age’.

I believe there are four domains in which play is crucial. I have dubbed these domains the Four Cs. They are; Cognition, Creativity, Connection and Courage.


  1. Cognition.

Play is essential for learning and developing cognitive capacity. Play helps forge neural pathways by encouraging curiosity, experimentation, risk taking and role-playing. In short it helps us explore and understand how the world works in a low-risk way. As Brown says: “…we do so [develop our understanding of the world] initially by understanding possibilities – simulating what might be, and then testing this against what actually is.”

The most literal example of play aiding learning in the realm of work, is the role that simulators have in training professionals like doctors and pilots.


  1. Creativity

The most sought after outcome of play in the workplace is creativity, Einstein described it as “Intelligence having fun”. As well its more outcome- focused ‘suit-wearing-cousin’ innovation. Associate Professor Steffen Walz of RMIT’s GEElab, a gamification expert, claims: “Playful attitudes are very good for encouraging innovation and it works best if players slip into the magical circles of games and play.” Play embodies many of the paradoxes of creativity, it necessitates a curious and experimental ‘beginner’s mindset’. It suspends rules and is open to improvisation and chance. It fosters the imagination, but is grounded in reality. Play requires the ability to zoom between big picture and minute detail. Albert Einstein used combinatorial-play in his experimental approach to bring together previously unconnected ideas, and claimed:

“Play is the highest form of research.” **

All of these capacities and mindsets help navigate challenges in increasingly complex, ambiguous and uncertain working environments.


  1. Connection

Connection is such an important element of play. Play encourages connection via inclusivity and provides common ground for increasingly diverse working teams. To play with others requires: openness, humility, vulnerability, humour, curiosity, adaptability, a sense of fun and perhaps most importantly, the ability to listen. A high performing team plays together like a jazz ensemble. Each player has specialist expertise, but all players must be on the ‘same-page’, in tune and playing in the same key. They don’t strictly follow a score, and they don’t necessarily have a specific pre-determined outcome in mind. They are able to improvise, play solos and make each other perform well, to co-create together. To do this they must be prepared to experiment, to take risks and even maybe fail.


  1. Courage

Play, both requires and engenders courage. It gives permission to assume alternative roles and experiment with different identities. It provides a safe context: to tout conflicting interpretations and ideas, for minority voices to be heard and authority to be safely challenged. Play even allows status and hierarchies to be disrupted. Anyone can be the King, the jester, the fool or the innocent who is allowed to tell the CEO that her Chanel suit is woven with invisible thread. Play mitigates against a culture of groupthink and allows people to try new approaches and experiment with new ideas, without fear of failure.

As example of the power of the 4Cs of play at work, where failure was ‘not an option’, is the case of Qantas Flight QF32 in 2010, where a catastrophic engine failure, blew a hole in the side of the fuselage on take off from Singapore. While the cockpit of a stricken Airbus 380 carrying over 400 passengers and 30 crew, doesn’t seem the ideal place for playfulness, it was indeed ‘a state of play’ that resulted in the five pilots (per chance there were extra pilots on board), landing the plane safely with no loss of life.

Firstly cognition. Each of the pilots had trained countless hours on a simulator. They had already played this game. Further to training, Captain Richard De Crespigny, credited his ability to bring the plane down safely to a childhood of playing with motorbikes, including taking engines apart and physically knowing how they work. Creativity. The pilots had to throw out the rule-book, switching off computer systems and alert warnings in order think and act on intuition, literally flying by the seats of their pants, requiring curiosity and experimentation.  Connection. The five pilots with multiple years of experience, although not necessarily well known to each other, worked together, each to their strengths and allowing others to work to theirs. Courage was obvious in the sense of operating under extreme duress, but the courage to subvert the dominant culture, to question each other and to speak out, including breaking rigid aviation hierarchy and cockpit chains of command was playful. Play resulted in the safety of all passengers and crew and a PR coup for Qantas.

If play can work for a cockpit crew in an emergency situation at 35,000 feet, it can work in any workplace. For organisations to be innovative and thrive in increasingly complex and competitive environments, a culture of playfulness is imperative. Workers must bring their whole selves including their playful selves to work. Play is one of the keys to what makes us human and with robots on the rise, we need all the comparative advantages we can muster. Game on!

* Personally I prefer that other great US Presidential quipster Ronald Reagan’s “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

**That other supercalifragilistic genius Mary Poppins, in ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’sang “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”




Brown, S. (2010) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. London: Penguin.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

March, J. G (1971) Technology of Foolishness. Civiløkonomen; Copenhagen

Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Penguin.

Steffen Walz, quoted in Stewart, Claire. Playtime at Work. In Boss Magazine, Financial Review, October 2015, Vol 16, p8.


Fox, J. (2014) The Game Changer. Melbourne: John Wiley and Sons.

Dan Pink – “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,”

One of the great proponents of play-work is Margaret Wertheim, read her “Figuring in the Landscape of Ideas” and check out her ‘play tank’  The Institute for Figuring


Image credit: header, feature

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