Put play to work

Michel Hogan
3 min readDec 5, 2021


When an organisation puts a ‘fun place to work’ in their values, they often mean a games room, funky furniture and kombucha on tap. Not how they carry out the unheroic work living beneath the trappings.

The Play Ethic author Pat Kane says play “Helps release thoughts that are locked in the head and the heart.” So bringing play into how your organisation does things can deliver a serious plus beyond the ‘fun place’ platitude.

A recent Hidden Brain podcast takes the idea even further into the beating heart of your business, looking at ways to thoughtfully combine the two worlds.

Host Shankar Vedantam observes,

the world of play and world of work have a lot in common. They can both involve painstaking effort and repetitive tasks. Yet many people pay money to do one set of activities and resent doing the other even though they get paid to do it.”

It’s a paradox you can leverage towards people enjoying work more and the organisation gaining ground your goals.

His guest, Wharton Professor Ethan Mollick, captures the everyday tension where “your accomplishments are all for the future, but when you blow up an alien (in a video game), you blow it up right now.”

People’s participation is critical, and if their minds are disengaged, it’s nearly impossible for them to feel that what’s happening now matters.

Can you take aspects of games and make tasks feel like play, giving people a more immediate reward? Even better if you can apply it to more mundane yet necessary activities?

Famous psychologist and author of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, observed people are most engaged — in their ‘flow’ state when mastery and challenge are balanced. Which could double as a description for how it feels in the ‘play zone’.

You can see the ‘gamification’ impact on how we use our phones, tablets and tvs. Competing against yourself and others is baked into everything from learning languages to watching that latest must-watch season on Netflix.

And when children play, it often includes quite complex situations and rules to keep the game interesting. So if you channel your inner kid, I’m sure you can come up with a few ways to enliven the stocktake, spice up your data entry or add some pep to customer service calls.

Even better, let those doing the work come up with a more playful process. Back to Pat Kane for a golden rule of play, “Play is voluntary: it can’t be coerced or mandated.”

Of course, these articles always come back to promises and brand, which means adding a decent dose of doable and connecting the play to what’s most important to generate, not erode value.

Easy enough if you have the ‘fun place’ value, but others might require you to stretch your thinking. The good news — there are thousands of ways you can give work some zip and make even unheroic tasks satisfy that head and heart connection.

The Hidden Brain podcast includes examples about Top Gun fighter training, surgeon simulations and Microsoft bug catchers. All good fodder for your efforts to dial-up people’s twin motivators of enjoyment and accomplishment.

See you next time.


Get new articles straight to your inbox. Click here



Michel Hogan

Brand Counsel, writer and speaker. What promises are you making and how are you keeping them?