Playing in the Sand: Why Having Fun at Work Matters

Mawulom Nenonene
Mar 27, 2017 · 4 min read

When my youngest daughter Martina was 3, I noticed that she loved playing in the sand. Whether it was at a beach, sandbox or playground, she could play for hours, and at times would even fall asleep in the sand too. So, when we moved from New Jersey to California, it only made sense that we got a playset with a sandbox in our backyard.

What I found however, is that the benefits of the sandbox far exceeded Martina’s mere enjoyment. Like most parents, I often attempted to chat with Martina after pre-school on our ride home, and as most parents find, this wasn’t so easy.

One day, after a quiet car ride home from pre-school, we went straight to the sandbox and began to play. The silent, withdrawn Martina, as if someone had flipped a switch in her, transformed into a talkative, insightful Martina. In time, I realized when she was in the sandbox, she was at her peak — always willing to share, give insights and offer glimpses into her day — wide open to feedback. Yes, 4-year-olds can be open to feedback. I could see then when she played, she emotionally thrived and opened up about her day.

I also realized that this was not something specific just to Martina, but to all of us.

When we are at play, or as we adults would like to call it — having fun, we also are open. Receptive. Engaged and willing. We are in the present moment. But this doesn’t just happen in sandboxes, it happens everywhere. In our family life, with our children, our marriages, and even at work.

Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher, in their book The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up, make a strong case for the benefits of making work fun. From their findings, and past experience from brilliant trailblazers who lead with levity, they’ve seen radically positive benefits:

“If people are having fun, they’re going to work harder, stay longer, maintain their composure in a crisis and take better care of the organization.”

In a recent study conducted on the effects of having fun at work, the results follow Gostick’s and Christopher’s findings. Within the 700-person experiment on the relationship between fun and productivity, their findings reflect a clear relationship between the level of productivity and fun. Simply put, when people were laughing and having fun, productivity jumped.

So if you’re currently in a very stale, serious and formal environment, how do you turn the tables to incorporate levity and laughter?

Play On Common Ground

If your team isn’t performing, morale becomes low. Fortunately, most problems on technical teams aren’t technical. They are people problems. When people don’t get along, they don’t collaborate. They’re hesitant to share ideas, opinions, or insights and because they aren’t fond of each other, they start working less as teams, and more as individuals. If you see this now in your workplace or suspect morale is dropping, put some effort into team-bonding. It’s a small price to pay to create a cohesive team.

You can do this by investing in your team’s happiness.

I had a boss once that every few months, would take everyone out for the day to catch up, bond and laugh together. Sometimes it was lunch and a movie, or a sporting event. Other times, we went hiking or got our dogs and headed over to the park and had a picnic. Just our team. I have to say, it was much easier to put out fires and go to bat for everyone after we had strengthened our bonds a bit.

Sometimes you can enter a pattern or negativity or hostility, especially when times are stressful at work. That time spent letting your guard down and connecting often got us to remember that we all have something in common, and while we may not see eye-to-eye as co-workers all the time, it made working together much easier to do especially when stress was running high. If you have some camaraderie in place, your team’s morale will be better able to weather storms together.

Build Play into Communications

Communications can make or break our relationships, and can also boost or hamper productivity. According to the authors of Levity, they suggest lightening up the little things to adopt a more lighthearted approach to what would otherwise be mundane situations.

All of us love fun. Let’s face it. We’d all rather be laughing at a funny movie, hiking the trails, seeing a great band, or hanging out with friends or loved ones. But the place we spend the most time is at work. When we spend most of our time in a place we consider the least fun place to be, that speaks sadness in volumes for our well-being, state-of-mind, and our productivity. So lighten up and play in the sand a little — for everyone’s sake.

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Mawulom Nenonene

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Building inclusive teams & sharing what I learn.


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