A friend informed me that at his place of work there is a new rule – no playing video games on your computers! Apparently there was too much Facebook farming going on. This wasn’t a simple comment from one boss to one member of the team. It was a new formal policy introduced with much fanfare. Wow. It’s fascinating that some managers still consider playing games (or other things that don’t fit the traditional notion of workplace behavior) as odd or problematic or just plain wrong. Corporate America has been waking up to a new view of productivity at work for the better part of three decades – but, alas, old ways of thinking are hard to shake. In the face of many successful companies who aggressively advocate play at work there is still resistance. Even though play of different types is a stress reliever (thus potentially lowering health care costs) and a stimulus to creative thinking (supporting change and innovation) it still receives a bum rap.
FarmVille, Sudoku, Angry Birds, chess, or ping pong – they are all the same: forms of non-work. Before berating someone caught enjoying five minutes of playful non-work, consider this crucial question: is this person (or group) achieving what he or she is supposed to be achieving? The question speaks to the need to manage outcomes, not processes. The goal is always to manage outcomes (monitoring what is expected of the employee or group – the deliverables, the goals, the metrics) and not the process (the specific ways they use their time to accomplish their goals). When you manage outcomes and avoid micro-managing the process you signal to employees that you trust them. Boy do we need more trust in organizations! In return, employees who feel this type of autonomy typically respond by showing more responsibility for their work and by espousing the value of their work to others. I understand that not all employees should be given a lot of freedom and autonomy. Fine. The rule is to give as much as is reasonable given their ability and the requirements of the task at hand. The point is, if you are actually using adequate goals and holding people accountable, providing autonomy is an amazing boost to positive working relationships.
When adults have autonomy at work they might not focus on their normal tasks 100% of the time. That’s normal. Guess what? Using some of that autonomy for small doses of play at work actually facilitates productivity for most people. It represents a fun not-related-to-work break that stimulates healthy thinking. If you see excessive playing and there has been a pattern of work products that have not been acceptable – intervene. However, in the presence of high standards, that’s not likely to happen. So step back and let them play whatever it is they are playing. It just might shake up their brains enough to stumble upon the next great idea for your company. Think of it like this, most people can’t work at full capacity, at the very top of their potential, all day every day. They need to vary how hard they push their brain. Since non-work, especially “playing,” is frowned upon, most employees simply fall into a trance like state half the time while trying to complete their work. Thus, the average employee performs at about 65% of their potential. If you let them “play” for 5 -10% of their time, I promise the remainder of their effort will be at 90% or higher. What would you rather have: employees consistently at 65% all the time or employees at 90%+ of their potential 90% of the time? That’s what I thought. Maybe you should play Angry Birds too.