Playfulness in the Pandemic: How to Preserve Joy in a Remote Work Setting

What was the last truly fun moment you’ve had at work? If you’re on a remote team, like most people these days, it was likely something that happened while you were “alone.” 

  • Maybe a co-worker sent you an unexpected but heartfelt message of thanks? 
  • You started a slack thread with baby photos of your colleagues—and the photos tickle you?
  • The start of a zoom meeting was used to catch up and discuss non-work things. Maybe a great leading question was asked by your manager, and after fifteen minutes you felt pulled closer to your team?
  • There was a virtual bonding event that you really loved—Trivia, goal-setting, work awards, or story-telling?
  • Maybe you haven’t had a truly fun work moment worth remembering in far too long? 

If that’s the case, stick with me for the next 5 minutes, and let’s make some progress towards changing that? (If you already do regularly have a blast at work, I’m guessing you’ll take away something fun and new to add to the mix.) 

Understanding Playfulness at Work

I often tell managers and group leaders in training exercises that if you ask a room full of adults “do you want to do a team-builder,” they’ll largely roll their eyes, sigh, and look off into the sky like they’re tracking a butterfly. They will generally be openly opposed to your little camp counselor game

However, if you just go ahead and begin a well-thought-out team builder that fits the culture, everyone will thank you afterwards. Adults want permission to have fun, but they generally walk through the world with some deeply seeded ideas like games are for kids, playing is something I grew out of, and I’m an adult now. It’s a real shame, because we all love to play. We love to be goofy, let our creativity come to life, and create shared one-of-a-kind memories. 

Think of the best times you’ve ever had in a group. I’m guessing there was something almost magic about it. There was something that let everyone be their true authentic selves, guards dropped—the way kids generally are. Let’s talk about how to create and uphold a work atmosphere that invites that feeling—where play is the norm, guards dropped is part of the work-uniform, and 2021 is the best year of work yet. 

Why to Play: 

To fully buy into this idea, to commit to a playful work environment, we first need a solid grasp on some of the key aspects of WHY it’s so important. As Takuo Fukuda, the creative director at SYPartners shares with Fast Company, “I’ve found that a playful approach can help build awareness of possibilities and set in motion a transformation from a current product, service, or culture. Playfulness is powerful. It helps people ease into change, it permits us to be experimental and to think about alternative states of being. It reveals the various perspectives within a group, and creates the conditions to work toward alignment.”

You’ve Got the Power

Playfulness is powerful. Playfulness leads to experimentation and iteration. Creating an environment in which your team feels open to be themselves, disagree, and have fun with an idea will undoubtedly cause more forward momentum and spurn creativity. It will also certainly keep disagreements in the “task conflict” bucket, instead of the “personal conflict” one. 

Normally, when we think of conflict, we think of the personal type first. That’s the “I don’t like this person” version of conflict. However, as Hidden Brain guest Adam Grant reminds us, There’s another kind of conflict, though…Task conflict, and it’s the idea of debating about different opinions and perspectives. It’s potentially constructive because it’s actually about trying to get to the truth. It’s not personal, it’s not emotional.

Keep It Cool

When you play with your coworkers, when you’re invited to be yourself and have fun at work, you’ll be able to keep disagreements in the “task conflict” bucket. “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy,Gran reminds us. If you don’t have disagreements at work, it just means you don’t really care that much about what you’re doing. So, disagreements are a good thing, as long as their tasks are related.  

Numerous studies show the ability to disagree well at work—keeping the debate centered on the task itself—is crucial for progress. In one related experiment, all groups who failed their project had a higher rate of personal conflict than task conflict. Their disagreements became personal and progress was halted. If your team plays together, if they’re allowed to say what’s on their mind, to each show up as their full self—that’s when the magic happens. That’s when disagreements result in something new and beautiful that no single person would have conquered alone, rather than bruised egos and halted work.

Where to Play: 

Creating a work environment ripe for play takes the right tools—the right toys. For instance, playground that consists of a lone sandbox (slack) and a slide (zoom) isn’t very fun. You need a slide, swings, sandbox, teeter-totter, and a few other ways to connect, get creative, and play.

Sandbox: 

One ubiquitous tool that all remote teams use to stay connected is zoom, or other video call software. It’s essential to connect face-to-face from time to time for remote teams. Video call technology is an effective means when team members span oceans. However, most teams start video calls by jumping right into a work agenda. Many teams have video calls where only one, or a small handful of people speak. Everyone else is just there like a bored sophomore in biology class. 

Let’s use the magic of video calls to spark playfulness at work through conversations. Let’s invite people to be themselves and connect in a real way with their colleagues. For instance, start calls with a small icebreaker question. End calls with everyone’s best moment of the week. Have a call that’s just for fun. 

Slide: 

Strictly text-based communications are the other most ubiquitous remote work tool, the virtual place where many remote workers spend hours every day. Using async text-messaging platforms, like Slack, organizes your team’s thoughts into channels, where everything is archived forever. It’s largely replaced emails for many remote teams. 

Text-based communication has all the emojis you can imagine and GIPHYs are fun, but there is so much more that specific platforms like Slack can do to provide a spark of playfulness. Be that person on your remote team that starts a new channel for puns, haikus, or music recommendations, the person who makes an emoji of your favorite co-worker’s face. Additionally, be the person who asks your team a question of the week that sparks creativity and joy. 

The Castle: 

Beyond these two mainstream remote working tools, there are newer platforms that can’t help but ignite a playful environment. Try an async video-messaging platform, where co-workers can send each other 60 second videos, organized and archived in channels. If you’re thinking to yourself, “that sounds like the best parts of slack and zoom combined,” you’d be exactly right. 

Async short video can allow a team member from anywhere in the world to start a fashion show. Anyone else on the team can then “walk the runway” wherever they are, whenever they want, in whatever fun outfit they have near them. All the 60-second videos will be organized for anyone at the company to watch whenever they choose. 

Harness the connective power of video, but keep the freedom of being asynchronous. In other words, you can contribute when and how you want. Nobody is expecting an immediate response, so regardless of time zone or energy level, you can do your best work whenever that happens specifically for you. Think of short async video as the big castle in the middle of the playground. It’s powerful, it’ll spark your team’s creativity, and you’ll find your inner child coming to life.  

How to Play: 

These tools allow people to work with greater freedom, on their own terms—and that’s when playing together gets really fun. 

Structure breeds creativity is one of our core values and life-mantras at Sprawl. Basically, this means that if you put some guard rails and structure around how these tools are used, you can sit back and let the magic happen. 

Here are some ideas to help spark creativity on any element in the playground

Synchronous Video: 

  • Start each team call with an intentional prompt to get folks sharing 
  • Create a tradition to welcome every new team member on their first call 
  • Use the chatbox to break up long meetings. A “chat box straw pole” or a round of what’s everyone’s “favorite ____” are two great ways to foster engagement and playfulness 

Text-Based Chats: 

  • Create affinity groups for your team members to find like-minded people (divers, yogis, writers, etc.) 
  • Start weekly traditions like “Friday gratitude” or “Monday weekend highlights”
  • Teach and encourage unique emoji creation so that your face, your bosses face, and anything else you might want can be a “reaction” to any message  

Asynchronous Video:

  • Home-office tours
  • Show & Tell with items from childhood
  • Tattoo explanations
  • Asynchronous open mic for poetry or acoustic music 
  • Story thread where one person begins making up a story and the next person to contribute in the channel keeps it going, etc.
  • Friday Sunsets (encourage the team to share a short video of the sunset wherever they are every Friday, maybe with a little statement of gratitude as well) 

Bring on Playfulness at Work with the Right Tools

There are plenty of text, synchronous, and async short video platforms your team can use to connect wherever – and whenever – work gets done. Whether you have a fully remote team or a hybrid team, you can snap a short video or from iOS or Android or even pop open a new window to capture video from your web browser. If you want a more in-depth walk-through of how to asynchronously bring playfulness into your workplace, check out the Team Building section of our Rethink the Offsite Toolkit here.

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