Fukada on Playfulness At Work

Everyone is willing, wanting, waiting to get back to work.  But we are all wondering what it will be like.

I’ve noticed that even a global pandemic can’t stop the never ending supply of advice about how to improve work and office life.  And the supposed improvements don’t change, even though we can’t even have a person-to-person meeting these days, even if we wanted to.

This month I read a piece by designer Takuo Fukuda,  “The surprising tactic that could help workplaces recover in 2021” [1].

The “tactic” he is talking about is playfulness.

What does he mean by playfulness?

Sometimes this is an actual game.  Sometimes it is just a non-standard, less formal situation, e.g., no “deliverables”, open agenda, brainstorming, etc.

I’m pretty sure that the critical factor is permission:  permission to depart from existing convention, permission to explore ideas without penalty for failure, and so on.

So it could mean lots of things.

Setting aside precisely what “playfulness” means for a moment, he is mainly concerned with the inevitable “disruptive forces” that will force changes, wanted or not.  (Like I said, the discussion isn’t really different than before the pandemic, is it.)

The essence of the argument is, that playfulness can “help engage employees and give them more buy-in to the changes”.  (This sounds suspiciously like tricking people into swallowing the medicine they don’t want, but then I have a real bad attitude about work.)

He makes three main claims.

Playfulness helps overcome a fear of change

“Playfulness lowers the stakes and provides permission to take risks,”

Playfulness encourages creative thinking

“Playfulness opens the door to new experiences that are more sensory and impactful than reading a presentation. This provides a fresh perspective and encourages creative thinking.”

Playfulness unites us

“playful moments foster stronger bonds and a shared sense of accountability.”


These claims are far from self-evident to me.  Even from my own limited experience, I can think of cases where this kind of “playfulness” had the opposite effects.

“Overcome fear?”  When the fear is justified, e.g., in the face of layoffs, playful meetings can be more a form of denial. 

“Fresh, creative thinking?”  If the playfulness brings out deep problems, it may exacerbate problems.  There also is no guarantee that you can come up with good ideas, especially in limited time, e.g., a single “playful” meeting.

“Unity?”  Games can reveal deep dissent and differences that divide rather than unify.  “Permission” to think and create freely can unleash personal biases, cultural rifts, and all sorts of divisive behavior. (See, for example, the internet.)

Of course, playful meetings, with permission to be creative can be fun.  In fact, I could ask why most meetings aren’t permissioned.  If the answer is, “because we need to get this work done now”, then I think we understand that the enterprise is probably poorly managed.

One thing that struck me the most about Fukada’s claims is that all of this playfulness and permission only works if there is significant trust, especially between management and workers. 

For example, if management has already decided that change is coming and what the changes will be, then having playfull sessions for workers to imagineer “change” is just sugar coating.  Asking for creative ideas is a sick joke unless the ideas will be taken seriously and hae a chance to be implemented.  I.e., workers have to believe that management actually cares about their ideas.

So, ironically, if play is not for real, it is a waste of time or worse, an insult.

Does playfulness create or enhance trust?  In my experience, not in itself.

What matters most of all is what happens after the play.  If the group successfully creates some new ideas (and possible solidarity, etc.), then this must be followed with encouragement and resources, and a real effort to try to make them real.  (And, by the way, this can be quite challenging to do.)

If management ignores the creative ideas, then the playfulness was an insulting waste of time, and probably damaged the organization.

So, I say playfulness + follow through is what is needed. 

Is this going to be especially important in 2021? Not really.

But in 2021-22 we’re all going to be embracing (sometimes literally) the opportunity to actually be together in person. So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some playfulness, for the human contact if nothing else.

  1. Takuo Fukuda, The surprising tactic that could help workplaces recover in 2021, in Fast Company, December 23, 2020. https://www.fastcompany.com/90588625/the-surprising-tactic-that-could-help-workplaces-recover-in-2021

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