As employers around the world try to figure out how to best harness productivity, some find that a little unproductivity can go a long way.
Playing games in the workplace is no groundbreaking new fad—and no, I’m not talking about a secret, endless game of Solitaire on your computer – but interactive games with co-workers. In the early 1990s, one San Francisco production company installed a basketball net in its open-plan office, resulting in denim-clad editors breaking into pick-up games at a moment’s notice.
In fact, Corporate Games, an aptly named company that claims to offer the “widest range” of office and team-building games and activities in the country, was founded over 20 years ago in 1991 “before team-building was really a thing,” explained corporate team-building expert Cynthia Shon during a telephone interview this week.
Shon explained some of the benefits of putting down work for a few minutes and taking the time to play a game. “Eighty percent of what we do is on the fun side of the spectrum,” Shon said about her company. What they try to do, she explained, is encourage and facilitate experiential – not experimental – learning.
The company, which has worked with American Express, Microsoft and Pfizer, to name a few, has a range of games, workshops and programs that they lead, and each one has a different target. For example, construction events, where teams must work together to build something can simulate business, Shon said “but in a non-threatening environment.”
On the fun, frivolous side is a series of picnic games that require teamwork, and on the less trivial side is a team development program they organize for groups with specific issues.
And the benefits of letting go and playing, Shon said, are plentiful. Firstly, the games force a certain level of social interaction and can facilitate conversation in a very jovial way. The use of games, she said, can also help co-workers get to know each other on a “more personal” level. And the perks keep on coming: laughter is a great bonding tool; the games allow participants to take risks in a non-threatening non-business situation; and they allow employers to see how members of their staff fare in competitions.
But the games are not just for subordinates, and Shon said it’s important that all members of the business team be involved.
“We encourage everyone to be on a team,” she said, explaining that while some bosses prefer not to be involved, their participation does a lot for fostering unity, camaraderie and moving forward from where the games leave off.
“The employees often have a lot to say about the games once they get back to the workplace,” she said, and often can be inspired to solve business problems using skills practiced during the games. It’s helpful in those cases, she said, when employers are aware of what went on.
But fun and games in the workplace isn’t, and shouldn’t be, limited to the offerings of a team-building organization. Ken Lin, co-founder and CEO of Credit Karma, wrote about the benefits of playing video games in the office, noting how video game breaks create bonds, provides mental stimulation, and some can even help train for business. “What’s happening in games can be representative of the challenges we face, and the strategies and tactics we need to exercise in our work. In both contexts, you are problem solving, trying to do things in the fastest, most optimal ways, and in an elegant fashion,” he wrote in July 2014.
For offices without oodles of space, a cell phone can act as a perfectly good game console. At one Bay Area startup, the team plays a game of Heads Up each Friday morning to encourage teamwork, communication and a little bit of silliness. The footage from the game is then played back on the big screen all day, to encourage even more silliness.
Around the world, businesses are getting more creative about the games they play and the team-building activities they encourage. Mi Valedor, a Mexico City-based social reintegration project for the homeless, uses cooperative games in its training process to improve and practice memory, discipline and social skills.
The Hong Kong office of Sinclair Communications had its employees spend two hours lying on the floor, creating one big doodle together. Doodling, coloring and other art forms have been found to be both very therapeutic and also to allow the mind to wander in a particularly thoughtful way.
Sports, word games, building activities, art projects; the list of ways to boost morale and productivity in the workplace goes on and on. A leader in the world of fun and games, video game designer Hideo Kojima once said, “Games shouldn’t only be fun. They should teach or spark an interest in other things.”
So if you’re looking for a way to add some levity and laughter to the workplace, all while improving communication, camaraderie and coming up with new ways to solve problems, pick a non-work related game or activity to play each week. It doesn’t have to take over the day (Shon said that some of her clients have now start their meetings with short games, while Mr. Lin made mention of the benefits of short bouts playing video games) but do yourself a favor, go have some fun. Who knows where it could lead.