Play At Work: Catalyzing Positive Change to Rehumanize the Workforce
Lumia Coaching alumni Sharon Calderón and Chuck Mountz discuss how Play Theory can serve as a catalyst for growth, productivity, and employee engagement.
Guest blog by Sharon Calderón and Chuck Mountz
Sharon Calderón (she/her) is no stranger to taking chances and living a life she loves on purpose. A 2021 graduate of the Lumia coach training program, she is an emotional wellness and resilience coach as well as a play educator and activist. You’re invited to join the fun on her internet playground on Instagram @shar.ingcreations.
Chuck Mountz (he/him) believes everyone deserves to be supported in the workplace. His passion is focused on people and leadership, and he has been actively involved in using coaching, community building, collaboration, and establishing safe environments to foster innovation and creativity in the workplace. Chuck is a 2021 graduate of the Lumia Coaching Intensive and you connect with him at Chuck Mountz, Jr Coaching.
The Power of Play Theory... At Work
- Well developed emotional intelligence.
- Willing to take risks.
- Critical thinking.
- Having optimism.
- Working well within a team.
These are all qualities the modern day company recognizes as catalysts for massive growth and productivity.
Ironically, the most qualified to fulfill the requirements for the job, in our opinion… are children.
Yes! You absolutely read that right.
Wondering what we’re talking about?
A great example of this is an experiment created by designer and engineer Peter Skillman, highlighted in the book The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.
Skillman designed an experiment comprised of 4 person teams tasked with building the tallest structure using uncooked spaghetti, tape, and a marshmallow. Some teams were made up of business school students from 3 different universities, including Stanford. Some were kindergartners. Later teams were formed with C-level executives, lawyers, and graduate students.
The kindergartners won, and on average nearly doubled the height of the older students.
Why? The adults focused on what Coyle described as “status management,” strategy, and planning. In contrast, the kindergartners truly collaborated, working together on the task at hand - with minimal conversation, and exploring all options.
In contrast, the kindergartners “experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides them towards effective solutions.” (Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code)
Childhood is a time that is FILLED with opportunities for these qualities to appear. But as we grow older, the constraints of adulthood to be successful in the traditional monetary, professional, and achievement sense take center stage. As a result, opportunities that allow the natural way we develop these qualities are sadly diminished.
And that natural way is through PLAY.
Play is innate within all humans.
Think about it: you don’t have to instruct a child how to play. They just do it!
To the adult eye, play may seem silly and simplistic. But it is much more than something that children do just for fun.
Play is an evolutionary instinct, designed to provide optimal interpersonal attachment and attunement to meet our needs for survival. Play is how people of all ages develop social-emotional life skills and dispositions that help us thrive.
From a biological perspective, play is something we don’t grow out of. But it can and has been forced to the background of our lives for the sake of productivity and “advancement.”
Productivity is the main objective of Hustle Culture. We‘ve been conditioned to believe it’s our duty to “work hard, play later.” Sadly, due to the ever growing demands for our attention and energy in both our personal and professional lives, later usually and unfortunately means “never.”
When play isn’t valued within our individual lives, all of humanity dramatically suffers. We are seeing the results of that with the high levels of burn-out, anxiety, depression, and even suicide skyrocketing with each passing year.
We can’t keep doing more of the same, believing it will somehow change our circumstances.
A new way to think about business and support a changing world is to reform how work gets done from the inside out. Optimist and author Simon Sinek says, “If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business.”
In our work, play IS SERIOUS business. And the mainstream world is starting to take notice of the years of research related to play and human growth and development.
That research is showing us that embracing play principles such as collaboration instead of competition and curiosity over correctness makes for better business. It also cultivates a more enriching and holistic work-life experience for people who DO play at work.
You may find it surprising, but the idea of play at work is not a new concept. The play movement has been in the works for some time now.
Flow creator and co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is widely considered to be a play pioneer. Many business professionals and people of great influence have indoctrinated themselves in Flow Theory to become more successful and productive, or to reach greater heights of human potential.
In his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, Csikszentmihalyi shares his dilemma around advocating for play amongst a work minded culture: “I was aware that to survive at [University of] Chicago I had to prove that I could attract grants to continue my research activities. But I was also aware that there were no obvious sources willing to subsidize research into something as frivolous as play and enjoyment. It finally occurred to me that there might be a way to solve this problem: I could propose to study work satisfaction, which was a sensible topic, and at the same time continue my study of adult playfulness in a more systematic fashion.“
Play by itself has been seen to have limited value. But thankfully, change is coming.
Employers are increasingly seeking more creativity and innovation from employees.
One obstacle to this is the current state of employee engagement.
The 2022 Gallup State of the Global Workplace showed that 21% of employees are engaged at work. The costs of this disconnect are dramatic. “Disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity.” ( The Real Cost of Employee Disengagement, Shiftboard)
A Great Place to Work lists one of the obstacles to employee engagement as a lack of meaningful connections, which breaks down into psychological safety, authenticity, and peer support.
Coaching and transformational leadership practices can significantly impact employee engagement. There is a great deal that leaders can do to create more meaningful connections by facilitating psychologically safe, supportive, and inclusive spaces.
In his book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change The Way You Lead Forever, author Michael Bungey Stanier helps the reader learn how to make the shift into the coaching mindset. Asking questions like “What else?” or “Tell me more…” help to create a safe environment where an employee’s mind can fully engage in thought without judgment.
What’s the impact in the workplace?
Russ Laraway’s research for his book When They Win, You Win shows that companies with highly engaged employees grow revenue at 2.5X that those with low engagement. He also references a company that linked 70% of its operating margin to a positive employee experience.
Coaching engages employees and directly results in positive organizational outcomes.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, many people are reprioritizing in a quest to make more conscious decisions that create deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives. Not just for themselves, but for their communities as well. This is generating an increased demand for workforce leadership to provide better opportunities for people to flourish at work.
Workers have made it clear they are prioritizing recognition, appreciation, honesty, transparency, greater opportunities for growth, and freedom of choice within their work environments. People want to be treated with and are demanding dignity.
In true business form, and as evidenced by the mass exodus of the workforce appropriately named “The Great Resignation,” you either evolve or your business dissolves.
“The pandemic stripped everything back. Workplace wellness went from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a vital element of pastoral care for a business to look after its employees at a time of crisis.” - Arti Kashyap-Aynsley, Ocado Group Global Head of Health & Wellbeing
Play Strategies for Leaders
As a leader, how can you participate in this innovative movement towards reinvigorating play within company culture?
1. Provide coaching for employees.
We’re not just talking about investing in executives here. There is untapped potential at all levels within an organization. Coaches can be brought in, sourced internally, or developed from within. As mentioned above, cultivating a coaching mindset is a terrific way to infuse a new way of thinking across an organization.
Need some concrete ideas on how to build your coaching competencies? Check out: 6 Coaching Techniques You Can Use At Work.
2. Improv training for workplace teams.
Improv skill building exercises help people communicate more effectively - both verbally and non-verbally. Stronger interpersonal communication skills in turn help to build greater empathy, listening, focus, support, safety, and authenticity.
Want a resource? We highly recommend the book Yes, And by Kelly Leondard and Tom Yorton to learn more.
3. Foster personal connections.
Creating spaces to build community at work brings people together. It provides a sense of belonging, and offers employees an opportunity to be a part of supportive spaces.
In larger organizations, you can begin by exploring Employee REsource Groups (ERGs). Outside of a formal company structure, there are many meetup and professional groups to discover as well. An example of this here at Lumia are our affinity groups for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ coaches.
If none currently exist, build one on your own! With accessible tools like Zoom and Slack, you can launch an interactive community with ease.
4. Study up!
Another comprehensive resource is the book by play coach, workshop facilitator, and improv enthusiast Gary Ware, Playful Rebellion: Maximize Workplace Success Through the Power of Play.
In his book, Ware highlights the current conundrum of why adults often feel resistant to the idea of play at work. “Play is risky and messy, and it’s about experimentation. If you must be perfect and your livelihood depends on you being better than the other guy, you’re not going to take risks, which means you’re not playing. When you’re not playing, you’re not being true to yourself.“
As a coach or leader, your impact is greater than you at first may realize.
Our small, intimate conversations impact the larger collective consciousness. That is how you create sustainable movement in societies. One connection at a time. Human to human.
It is now an even more critical point in our evolutionary history that we take the expanding knowledge of play and apply it within our work. It’s time for us to rediscover how to work WITH our natural biology instead of fighting against it as we have been conditioned to do.
Purposefully infusing play principles to develop a more ethical company culture and improve the employee experience will help evolve not only how we work, but also give people a refreshing new experience of holistic personal success and enjoyment that they may have never thought possible.
Want a partner in the process?
If you’d like to explore more ways to embrace play as a means of enhancing both your personal and/or professional life, Chuck and Sharon are available for coaching, consulting, speaking, and play workshop facilitation.
Ready to Become A Coach?
One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our coaches like Sharon and Chuck ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.