Charlie Todd is a TED speaker who also happens to be an instigator ... of large-scale pranks. A few years ago, he received an email from a Texas high school student who said, "For your next thing, you should put as many people as possible wearing blue polo shirts and khaki pants into a Best Buy and have them stand around."
To which Todd replied, "Yes, you are correct. I think I'll do that this weekend."
Thus it was that one fine day in New York City, he got 80 people to dress in khakis and blue polo shirts and "invade" a Best Buy in Manhattan. Their instructions were simple: "Don't actually do any work, but also don't shop. Just stand around and face product."
The Best Buy employees thought it was a riot. They joked with participants, saying they should make them fetch heavy TVs from the back.
The managers weren't nearly as amused - after ten minutes, they actually called the cops.
Fortunately, as Todd said in his TED talk on the subject, "[T] he police had to inform Best Buy management that it was not, in fact, illegal to wear a blue polo shirt and khaki pants."
As funny as a prank like that is, there's something bigger at stake.
Play at work is underrated, yet it over-delivers when it comes to nearly every metric. Research shows that play in a professional setting reduces mental strain, refreshes the brain, enhances creativity, prevents burnout, inspires innovation, and encourages teamwork.
That last one is particularly salient. A recent study out of McGill University showed that simply being in the presence of a stranger raises stress levels. However, researchers also showed they could dramatically reduce stress levels and actually increase levels of empathy by having subjects do something very simple:
Play the game Rock Band together for 15 minutes.
That's right: Once people who started out as total strangers played the music video game Rock Band together (in which you literally just pretend to be in a rock band with your fellow gamers), their stress decreased and level of empathy increased to the same physiological level as that of being around a close friend.
In other words, play not only helps people work better, it helps them work better together.
The name of the game in professional settings these days is teamwork. Teams regularly outperform individuals and are shown to be one of the most effective ways to get things done.
But getting teams to work together well - to be both creative and collaborative - isn't always the easiest thing to do, especially when modern teams are often geographically scattered.
What if the solution wasn't adding incentive-based bonuses or requiring attendance at more trainings, but, well, playing?
I started a new job recently. It's a consulting gig, and my coworkers are on the other side of the country. I've never met them in person, but we have to ask things of one another, clarify our communication, rely on each other, deliver results - in a word, collaborate.
Recently, in response to an email about us having completed one of our projects, I sent them this .gif (it's really worth clicking on).
They loved it and told me so. Getting their "lol" responses made me grin, and I felt refreshed, ready to tackle the next thing with enthusiasm. Plus, as silly as it sounds, I feel more socially bonded to them than I did before. I'm not faking it - I'm actually happier at work now.
Innovation and collaboration are the pillars of modern-day success. They're also both delicate in nature; they don't (and in fact can't) happen with brute effort. Yet while we can't force them, we can foster the environment in which they flourish.
What's one way you could incorporate play into your workplace, either on an individual or collective level? The benefits you'll reap are worth it.
Or, in the words of one of the most prolific and hardest workers of the last century:
"Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game." - Michael Jordan