How to Create a Playful Company Culture (Hint: It Doesn’t Involve Ping-Pong Tables)

When Jill Vialet founded the nonprofit Playworks, her goal was to bring out the best in every child through the power of play, helping kids build important social and emotional skills. And, she later discovered this is exactly what adults need too.
Jill had this realization when she invited the organization’s corporate partners to take part in school recesses. It because clear that it wasn’t just the children who got something valuable out of the breaks — the visiting employees benefited too.
In fact, a recent survey commissioned by Playworks on behalf of U.S. Bank found that 98% of people think play is valuable for adults. Not only does it give employees a much-needed break, but it fosters creativity and helps bring people together.
“If you think about play as a design element in the human experience,” Jill says, “you disproportionately make it likely that serendipitous good things will happen, because it brings out the best in people and helps them connect.”
More recently, Jill and the team at Playworks launched a corporate consulting group, Workswell, focused on leveraging play, storytelling and design thinking as tools for intentionally building healthy workplace culture. In her playful breakout session at Talent Connect 2018, Jill shared three strategic and meaningful ways you can build play into your workplace culture — no ping-pong tables required.

1. Onboard with icebreakers, like quick questions and amusing activities

To demonstrate the power of play at her Talent Connect talk, Jill introduced a game called Mingle. Attendees were asked to mingle until she said the magic word (in this case, “LinkedIn”). Upon hearing it, they had to stop and perform a prescribed activity — ranging from answering a simple question (like naming a leader they think of as playful) to creating a secret handshake — with the nearest person.
Besides getting people active and prompting plenty of laughs, this exercise taught a valuable lesson: with fun icebreaker questions and activities, total strangers can build instant connections with each other. And this technique works as well in the workplace as it does in a conference setting.
“This is a great onboarding activity,” Jill says. “Because often when onboarding happens, we bring the new person in and we ask them to share stuff about themselves, but don’t create a context for sharing with everybody.”
Mingle isn’t just a useful game for onboarding. It can also help a company’s leaders avoid one particularly awkward conversation.
“One of the things we’ve been hearing a lot from really fast-growing companies is that C-level staff, in a moment of total embarrassment and shame, will acknowledge that things are going so quickly that there are all these new people working there and they don’t know their names,” Jill says. “Having it go on too long makes them feel like a jerk, so they just avoid working with those people. Having games where you say your name and say a thing creates an opportunity to get past that.”
You can use this technique to build connections and rapport even if everyone at your company is well acquainted. At Playworks, Jill says her team opens every meeting by answering a random question, like what was the first concert they ever attended.
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2. Improve performance reviews with a simple card-sorting exercise

Jill’s second playful technique is designed to make performance reviews and goal-setting feel less “icky” and more constructive. She recommends tearing a piece of paper into smaller cards and writing some of the employee’s work goals on them. Leave a few “wild cards” blank for them to fill out themselves, if they want.
Then, during the performance discussion, ask the employee to rank the cards based on certain criteria, like how well they think they did — and get them to talk through their thought process as they move the cards.
“We’ve started testing it at Playworks,” Jill says. “If you know someone’s goals from the year before, you can ask them to order the cards to reflect which were most challenging, or which felt most successful.”
This technique, Jill says, can help employees talk more thoughtfully about their goals and performance, especially if they’re more visual than verbal. And while on the surface it might not seem especially playful, it ultimately makes these discussions more interactive and less formal.
Using a card-sorting game can also improve how managers engage with performance reviews, making them more attuned to nonverbal cues. Jill advises watching an employee’s hands as they move the cards around. If they linger on one, for example, it could indicate that they struggled with that particular goal.
“As a manager, it does actually create space for me to have a little bit more of an open conversation,” Jill says. “It just changes the dynamic subtly enough that we are in it together.”

3. Gamify feedback to boost engagement in meetings and create a shared vibe for remote employees

Play also has a place in meetings. Jill believes that incorporating playful elements can be a powerful way to encourage frequent feedback — and make providing it less intimidating.
“Giving and getting feedback is like a muscle,” she says. “The more you do it, the better you get at it. So we’ve tried at the end of every meeting to put in some kind of feedback device — like people going around saying ‘I like,’ ‘I wish,’ ‘I wonder.’”
Another feedback-generating technique is asking for “an aha, an apology, or an appreciation” — a strategy Jill admits is “stolen from second graders.” You need to tell employees at the start of the meeting that you’re going to be doing this so they have a chance to prepare. At the end, ask them to give an aha if they heard something revelatory, or say what they appreciated about the discussion. They may also choose to share an apology.
“The apology is totally fascinating,” Jill says. “Creating an opportunity to publicly apologize as part of the feedback loop is incredibly liberating. My experience is that the people you would least expect to jump on the apology bandwagon will take a moment to say they overreacted.”
Using a structured yet playful technique like this can turn feedback into a more normal, comfortable part of your meetings. It also changes the way employees engage with the meeting, since they may pay closer attention knowing they’ll be asked to give feedback at the end.
These games can have a secondary purpose — creating a shared vibe that remote employees can experience too. These activities help people in the room remember that virtual attendees are present, while also helping remote staff stay plugged in to what’s going on — resisting the urge to multitask.

Play isn’t just for kids — it’s also a serious business tool

Weaving elements of play into your culture isn’t just about making it more fun. It can be a powerful driver of positive change.
“For very competitive people,” Jill says, “if you build a workplace with a super healthy culture, ultimately you’re going to have greater productivity and profitability.”
Before you start implementing these strategies in your workplace, it’s important to remember that people may need time to adjust. Letting yourself be playful at work is not something that many employees are used to. If they feel forced, their efforts won’t be truly playful.
“The key for me is that it’s voluntary,” Jill stresses. “You should really play in the way that you feel comfortable. Volition is a key aspect of it actually being playful.”
So play with these strategies, test what works for your culture, and don’t forget to have fun.