Work: A paradise of play?

IMG_5885Is the future of work the promise of a paradise of play?

The upside of Paul Fleming’s recent article for BBC Viewpoint suggests it might be – only it’ll just require us to totally rethink everything we think about work (and, especially, productivity).

The concept of Play@Work has been a long held belief of mine when it comes to running a creative department.

A lot of great ideas are the result of people messing around.

Being silly. Thinking beyond the possible. Putting something ridiculous out there and then refining it into something meaningful. This is often how great ideas are generated.

The imagination can’t be driven by process. Creativity can be harnessed by a creative process, no doubt – there are ways in, there are ways to stimulate – but really imaginative solutions happen in the head where seemingly unconnected things make new connections (or when two heads, or more, make the unconnected connect together to create a new whole).

What sparks those connections might be found in a weighty briefing document – they may also be found by seeing an apple fall from a tree or the trail of a plane streaming across the sky. And, as creative managers, we have to provide our teams with all types of stimuli – the info, the space to think, and the time to play.

The challenge is how it looks.

Many moons ago, no one thought anything of a creative team spending the day concepting in the park. When I worked in Soho Square as a creative, I didn’t own a pair of jeans that didn’t have a grass stain on them. I had a permanent tan. And I knew all the dispossessed souls of Soho who’d inevitably find a patch of grass on a sunny day to pass out in.

But then, this was the nineties. I didn’t have a work phone. There wasn’t an expectation I’d respond within the hour to any email. I couldn’t get an email unless I was at my desk. (No wonder it’s tempting to look back and see my Soho days as a golden age).

Things change. Fast forward a couple of decades and, even though I know better, I still sometimes get that little twinge of ‘what are they doing?’ when I walk past someone’s screen and see them on Facebook (even though I’m encouraging them to do that, to keep ahead and source insight and inspiration from all channels, particularly social ones).

It just doesn’t look like work and I can’t tell, at a glance, whether they’re investigating a client’s page (good) or just looking for a recipe for dinner that night (okay, but not so good and not if you’re spending an hour comparing the merits of quinoa to giant couscous).

As for concepting on site, that too doesn’t always look like work. We’re very lucky at SMRS to have some great spaces to play in, but getting in a room and watching videos, scrawling things up on the wipe-clean walls or lying back on a bean bag (yes, we do have them!) and doodling something on a notepad doesn’t always, at first glance, look like work at all, let alone hard work.

It is. It’s really hard work. It’s intense and emotional.

It requires logic and soul-searching, honesty and courage. And sometimes the little break into silliness or a natter about the weekend fuels the next spurt of creativity (back to Fleming and his short-burst spurt working dynamics).

But, if even an experienced Exec Creative Director can sometimes – in the grip of deadlines and always trying to deliver above and beyond – lose sight of the very thing he promotes as vitally important, Play@Work, it’s going to take a awful lot of soul-searching, change and will to get our heads around the very concept of a paradise of play at work for all, let alone to create the conditions for that to happen and thrive.

The real upside? This is an ideas economy. Ideas are what we have to sell. We have to, as a commercial imperative, create new working environments to encourage greater creativity. Play has to be our priority in order to survive.

I’m not so sure about paradise, but I do think – if employers learn how to facilitate productive play and employees learn how not to exploit it – something better really can be within reach.

This blog first appeared on 24th May 2015

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