HYBRID WORK AND THE CASE OF THE ABSENT PLAY


Before I started Manchester Street, I worked for an amazing little agency called Emphatic Thinking, staffed by some incredibly talented people, many of whom I still work with today. It was, in many ways what we would now describe as a hybrid work environment: attendance at the office was optional, and many days people worked remotely. That said, we made the office a space that invited attendance and rewarded it with rich opportunities for collaboration. We talked about projects over lunch and between meetings, and we attempted to solve problems or develop better arguments for our clients by bringing together different perspectives.


A big part of how we worked involved random acts of play, most often via a simple, wooden chess set and a crokinole board (if you haven't played crokinole, you're missing out on one of the most highly rated tabletop games, and one with infinite replay value). Both games provided the opportunity for conversation and lateral thinking during play, and they also provided the opportunity to bond through shared activity and to build organizational cohesion. This is by no means uncommon. Organizations often provide foosball tables, poker tables, table tennis and other recreational forms of interaction within the workplace. They plan elaborate team building exercises that often use play to build relationships between co-workers.


There's a reason for all of this: it works. Research suggests that play in the workspace pays dividends in individual productivity, as well as in overall organization culture. Today, these are two of the biggest challenges in the new normal of hybrid work, in a time of employee upheaval frequently referred to as the Great Resignation or Great Reshuffling. There is widespread support for the hypothesis that play enriches work in a variety of ways. We know that workplace stress results in a lack of workplace loyalty in the best of climates, and likely even more so after having spent two years focused on issues related to health and personal well-being.


Even before the pandemic, research suggested that overall engagement within an organization, even within the context of flexible or remote work, was a key indicator of overall success. And other research has linked play to increased creativity, a breaking down of detrimental workplace hierarchies, and an improved overall sense of psychological safety, all of which contributes to the sharing and actioning of ideas.


In other words, the link between play and productivity, between play and team cohesion, enjoyed widespread agreement - at least in principle - prior to the arrival of COVID-19.


And yet, if we look at the major platforms upon which remote and hybrid work are conducted, one would be forgiven for thinking that the research must conclude in the other direction, because play is largely absent from the feature set and design philosophies found in those technologies.


Sure, there are gif finders for memes, amusing background options, personalized or custom emojis, and alternate ways of organizing how participants are displayed (Microsoft Teams' Together mode is a great example), but while these features can provide some modicum of fun, they are not sufficient for supplying play.


There's no team building component, no sense of competition or outcome-based cooperation. There are no stakes. No sense of chance. No meaningful decisions that allow individuals to road test interactions in a context less serious than those defined by real world business outcomes.


In other words, no play.


REDEFINING PRODUCTIVITY


There needs to be more robust sense that productivity isn't merely defined by the capacity to delimit and complete specific tasks, or put differently, perhaps it would be useful to think about the differences between task-driven productivity and value-driven productivity.


The first is, it seems, much more readily enabled by remote and hybrid work. Less commute time means people get more tasks completed. Less distractions in the office allow for better focus. Boring meetings can be a "turn video off" click away from providing even more worktime to complete other tasks.


Value-driven productivity, by contrast, looks more toward outcomes and operates more formally at an organizational level. It's about making sure that the time in the office is worthwhile, that the commute feels justified, even if some individual task time is lost. It's about making sure projects are effectively managed, not just as an aggregate of individual tasks, but as a collective or amalgam that is more than the sum of each person's measured activity. It's about sitting through a boring meeting only to suddenly be struck by an idea, by some random connection between data points or people, and producing more value as a result. It's about building relationships that improve job satisfaction and that contribute to the overall organizational culture.


Enabling and improving productivity is a fundamental part of any remote or hybrid work platform, and if we understand that what enables productivity is not merely the measuring of output but the improvement of outcomes (always plural, because there are always more than one category of outcome), then we have to think about work platforms differently.


We need to think about how these platforms can enable play, and not just work.


The funny thing about this is that this should be easy. It's certainly easier to connect random strangers for some online video gaming than it is to get random strangers to congregate in a shared space for a tabletop gaming session. These platforms are already tied to identities and calendars and all sorts of integrated apps. They work on computers that are also used for gaming, and the same generations that have embraced flex work are also the same generations for whom video game playing is the norm, not the exception.


How is it that Teams or Slack doesn't have a basic chess game plug-in, for people to muse over while talking about the direction of a project? Where is Texas Holdem? A decent trivia game? Anything with a leaderboard that resets at regular intervals?


If there's a concern that these online games wouldn't have the same impact as other forms of on-site play, rest assured the evidence suggests otherwise. A few years back, a study out of Brigham Young University looked specifically at the effectiveness of video games as a form of play within workplace teams, concluding that video game playing and goal training had equal effects on overall goal commitment, but that the video games outperformed both the control condition and goal training when it came to improvements in overall team performance. Indeed, they noted that the game participants enjoyed a "sense of heightened enjoyment, time dissociation, being in control, and curiosity in their task."


All of this sounds pretty good, if we're thinking about enabling value-driven productivity. And yet, play remains incredibly difficult to come by in today's work platforms. My complaint here isn't that play is impossible in the new normal of Remote Work. One can turn to a variety of third-party options, some of which are even facilitated within the Teams/Slack/Zoom environments. Rather, the complaint is that the core systems that serve as the solution for Hybrid or Remote Work don't seem to consider these elements worth prioritizing, which increases the difficulty of organizing or inviting people to engage in play.


RETHINKING TEAMBUILDING



The upshot is that building team cohesion and performance through play is harder than it should be. There are some options, and it's worth noting several of them:

  • Kahoot! has a great plug-in for learning and for trivia, that can be embedded into a specific team and channel in Microsoft Teams, though it's more focused on social learning than on play.

  • There are teambuilding games like Espionage, Virtual Escape Rooms, and Bingo, which use the video conferencing features to run "whodunnit," who found it, and who got out style experiences.

  • There are innovative applications of other features like Trello cards or Microsoft Forms to enable bespoke quizzes or two truths and a lie, etc.

These are only a few examples of what's possible, but none of them have the simple ease of walking up to a foosball table or sitting down to a card game. And this friction in implementation makes them less likely to be useful as a way of interacting, and instead makes them more likely to be used for mandated or required "fun time" activities, which is the absolute worst way to use play at work. Paraphrasing Samuel West's research on play in the workplace, "play imposed is play opposed."


And yet, the possibility for play remains an incredibly important and valuable tool for building team dynamics and improving the sense of belonging, at a time when so many people feel, in this new remote environment, as if they're now adrift.


Ross Smith, a Fellow at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, and a delightfully nerdy engineer, has been pushing the value of play in the workplace for years, and has run a variety of gaming scenarios during his long tenure at Microsoft. I first met Ross more than a decade ago, when I was teaching a course for the University of Washington's Communication Leadership program. The course focused on game design, and the lessons it can offer marketers, and Ross had perhaps the most encyclopedic knowledge of productivity gaming of anyone I had met and shared it generously with the graduate students.


In an interview in the American Journal of Play way back in 2012, Ross noted:

The “place for play”—or magic circle as some people call it—for members of an organization is a place to learn trust-building behaviors. Experimenting with new ways of working is acceptable within a game—in a place for play... Games offer a framework to support risk taking and experimentation, and in a game, someone can learn new skills by trying them out on their own.

Where are these opportunities for experimentation and risk taking today? Where are the opportunities for play? How do we reproduce those opportunities in a world of Hybrid or Remote Work?


It is, I think, a shame that our platforms haven't enabled us to do more, and do it more easily. Maybe that day will come. Maybe the Great Reshuffle will at some point refer to a deck of virtual cards, instead of employee churn. Until then, at least we'll keep efficiently checking off the tasks in our list, one by one by one.

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