Learning & Development

Why Learners At Work Need Playfulness Right Now?

Are you already engaged in play at your job, or are you still simply working? 

Working as a lifestyle seems to be in vogue today – at least if one believes in the ideals of the “New Work” trends. Nowadays, work is approached in a contemporary manner, characterized by flat hierarchies, agility, and self-determination. Bosses are seen as equals, sporting New Balance shoes and no ties. Conflicts are moderated, tensions are openly expressed, and individuals are encouraged to show up as a whole person. However, while some seem to have access to this oasis of professional happiness, others find the door firmly shut. 

So, why should HR professionals consider taking a peak into these playful spaces?

To shed light on this question, let’s dive into game theory. According to the philosopher Bernard Suits, playing is a voluntary activity in which we overcome unnecessary obstacles. Initially, this may not sound like work. However,
approaching work playfully means surpassing the boundaries and obstacles of the job. During play, the skills of the player unfold, creativity is unleashed, and various efforts disappear. Consequently, both work and play share requiring effort, facilitating learning, and striving to achieve goals. The sole distinction lies in the consequences attached to winning or failing.

As research shows, a playful mindset does not only prove advantageous for problem-solving in uncertain times, but in particular when it comes to learning and professional growth. By solving obstacles in a playful and therefore safe and creative environment, learners become less biased, more motivated, and open to new information and perspectives. A recent study, conducted by Ryan Buell at Harvard Business School, evaluated the impact of using a playful learning experience at the professional services firm KPMG and the results were significant: “The number of clients rose by up to 16%, and opportunities from new clients rose by as much as 22%. The more that employees played Globerunner – the gamified training experience for understanding the company’s products – the more likely they were to improve performance in their jobs.”* (source)

A counterargument against the usage of playful learning at work is based on recent economic developments, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. It suggests that there is no room for play due to heightened financial and economic pressures. As employees strive to adapt to the rapid changes in their surroundings, the prevailing belief is that a more serious approach is required. While this perspective might be true for the survival of companies and organizations, it fails to acknowledge
the essential role of ‘playful spaces’ in training and learning. In fact, the need for such spaces, which facilitate learning and personal growth, becomes even more crucial in challenging times.

This is particularly true when it comes to soft skills and leadership training, where you can not just take the fast track and increase the pressure to improve social and communication skills faster. It is important to keep in mind what theorist Brian Sutton has pointed out: “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” By incorporating playful elements, game-based learning, gamification, and a playful mindset, employees can fully engage in their training and explore work situations within a playful setting, while the pressure around them pauses for a moment. This is a fruitful learning space that allows them to create new perspectives, expand their skill sets or become aware of biases that may hinder their work performance.

One challenge that many Learning & Development departments face is that there is the limited availability of information on various playful learning experiences that can be utilized to enhance their training. Occasionally, coaches incorporate game-like exercises to be played during team retreats, or gamification mechanics are employed to enhance online courses. However, there is a scarcity of exchange and collaboration within the HR community, regarding their motivation to use playful elements in their training, and their actual effectiveness. In order to give due importance to the use of playful elements, more insights from the industry are needed. This will enable game and experience designers to respond effectively to the specific needs of Learning & development professionals.


To take a step towards providing more insights into this field, we are collaborating with our research partners from the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Economics, Management, and Finance BFI Vienna. We are currently conducting a study on the state of play in organizations in 2023. The survey seeks to gain valuable insights into the challenges and potentials of gamification and playful tools in training, enabling us to better understand their benefits and potential for learning and development within organizations. The findings will be used to create a case study on the current utilization of playful learning in organizations.

Are you or someone from your team organizing learning activities at your organization? We want to hear from you! The survey (5 minutes) will remain open until June 29th. We will then analyze the data and share a final report with the participants: https://playfulsolutions.typeform.com/play-at-work



Dr. Konstantin Mitgutsch, Playful Solutions

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