Employers’ attempts to mix work and play are often met with employee skepticism—”For some, there’s nothing less fun than company-sponsored ‘fun’ with coworkers,” declared one recent Wall Street Journal article—but a thoughtful approach to play is a powerful way to make workplaces more dynamic, argues Michelle Lee, partner and managing director at IDEO North America and a leader of the design firm’s Play Lab.
“We tie it to curiosity,” she says. “We tie it to creativity and innovation. Play opens up the possibilities.” We spoke to Lee about the importance of play at work, how to build design thinking into the employee experience, and how to optimize team-bonding efforts for maximum engagement. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Why is it important to have play in the workplace, and what does that look like?
We tie it to curiosity. We tie it to creativity and innovation. Play opens up the possibilities. When you say ‘work,’ often work gets you to the thought that there's one way to do things, that there is a right answer that you have to get to, which can put a lot of pressure on you in terms of how you approach your work. Play can be very freeing. It gives you that freedom to explore a little bit, to experiment, and that's what helps get you to different solutions that are often more innovative and that can allow you to adapt to new situations.
As we're returning to the office and we're finding that a lot of the things that we did before don't work anymore, that's a great opportunity for play. That's a great opportunity to step back to imagine, to try some experiments, knowing that not everything you do right away has to stick. What's a prototype that we can run? If it works, that's great, but oftentimes there's some kind of lesson that you can get out of it to improve that situation.
What’s an example of an experiment rooted in play?
One is, what do people do between projects? How do people stay busy and stay motivated? So we created ‘play dates.’ We've tried different versions of this. We would say, ‘Give me a project that you want to do.’ And then someone is like, ‘I want to create a newsletter for the team to help share what's going on.’ Someone else is like, ‘Oh, I want to experiment with AI and see how far we can push that and what our point of view might be.’
You start realizing you have different levels: One thing's a one-hour experiment. Another’s a one-week experiment. So how do we categorize play dates so that they make sense? Recess is the quick thing that you want to try that will fill maybe half a day, because you only have half a day. Spring break is where you’re going to actually spend a week or two on this project. That got us to, when you finish the project, what happens to it? How do we carry it on? How do we find some continuity? How do we find a home for it? And then sometimes people get pulled off of a spring-break project. What is a mechanism to hold it, so that someone else can pick it up while this person's busy or they can come back to it? So those are all things that we'll learn in the process of being like, ‘Let's just try it.’ Give yourself room to come back and answer those questions as they arise to keep iterating on whatever process you've created.
Another piece of experimentation is understanding how people are responding to whatever prototypes you're putting out there and adjusting as you go. The key piece, when you think about, ‘Where does design thinking come into this? Where does human-centered design come into this?’, is listening and responding. Keeping an eye on things like forced fun. Where are people really uncomfortable? Where people are starting to get bored or not really see the point?
You mentioned ‘forced fun.’ How would you define that?
During a recent offsite, we did karaoke together. Not everyone has to sing. There's a role for people to sit and watch and enjoy or even just sing along, but from their seats. But forced fun is when you're like, ‘Okay, everyone has to take a turn, everyone's going to go up there and sing.’ If someone is petrified of singing, that's going to backfire on you. One of the things I look to a lot is [University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly] Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, and how flow keeps you in this great engaged state. Engagement and play are two things that I equate quite a bit. But to stay in that state of flow, it has to be this really balanced state where it's not something so easy that it becomes boring, and it's not something that's so hard or frustrating that you just can't do it. It pushes upper bounds, but you don't want to push too hard. If you do, you'll break it, in the theory of flow. When you become frustrated, it might be when you become paralyzed and when you actually opt out or shut down.
So how do you stay in the area between boring and frustrating, where you have just the right level of difficulty to match the skill or the comfort level in this situation? And then as you get to know someone, your comfort level might increase. So almost like flow changes with skill and difficulty—you can apply that to a social situation where you increase the amount of vulnerability that might be needed.
And just modeling the ability to be vulnerable pays dividends in the long run. If we're each able to open ourselves up and do things that we aren't necessarily perfect at, in a safe environment where we can play—such as karaoke—that opens up the opportunity later on when it might be even higher stakes: in a presentation, or where we're debating the outcome of some learning and how we're going to apply it to our work. It gives people the courage to step forward and share their thoughts, even if they're half-formed, in a way that allows us to build off of each other and get to the final deliverable together.