Performance Management

Suzy's Chief People Officer Anthony Onesto on the Power of Play at Work

March 27, 2019
November 7, 2023
Lattice Team

Anthony Onesto is a leading expert on culture, human resources, and talent. He currently serves as the Chief People Officer at Suzy. Anthony is also the founder of Ella Adventures, a company whose purpose is to encourage young girls to pursue interests in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and Entrepreneurship.

Every month, we’re bombarded with stories about how Americans are more stressed and overworked than their global peers. “Work is a public health crisis in the world,” as Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer puts it in his book, Dying For A Paycheck. The thing is, no matter how many times we hear about this problem, little is done to help solve it. In fact, several misconceptions that pervade American workplace culture exacerbates this problem. Pfeffer’s own research found that while employers “prefer longer rather than shorter hours because of the implicit belief that work output is related to the number of hours worked—the more hours, the higher the output,” that actually, “long work hours produce fatigue and boredom, which lead to making more mistakes.” It’s expensive too: according to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, this public health crisis costs American businesses at least $300 billion a year.

A problem closer to home for companies is recruiting new talent here in the States, given the worsening conditions and management in America’s workplaces. Why would someone join your company if everyone that works for you is, well ... Stressed, anxious, and overworked?

There are solutions out there to this epidemic of our employees being stressed, anxious, and overworked. Most of them are larger, systemic changes; but in the meantime, your company can integrate some innovative solutions into your company culture right now to help combat this problem. One solution I believe we can implement right away is injecting more time for play at work.

“Play?” Okay, let me start from the beginning. Finland has the top school system in the world, along with a laundry list of other impressive achievements. One American teacher, Timothy D. Walker, wrote about how his experiences teaching in Finland compared to teaching in the United States. And Walker found the effects of injecting play within the school day among his students was remarkable. At first, Walker didn’t want to go along with the system used in Finland — Walker figured it was a disruptive, unneeded process that his American students had never needed. But when his Finnish fifth-grade students started getting restless, he decided to try it out, and Walker was surprised by the results. As he writes:

“Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.”

That extra bounce in their step should not go unnoticed. According to Smithsonian Magazine, that bounce has equated to, “93% of Finns [graduating] from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States.”

If we know play has led to an increase in happiness and performance among students, why not try injecting play into the workday and testing for similar results?

The Question Then Is … How?

Art by Anthony Onesto

Play can take many forms at work; and it’s important to understand that when I say “play,” I don’t mean letting your employees run around and hit the boss in the face with a water balloon. As funny as that may be. Here “play” refers to the unstructured time that allows your employees, regardless of their station within the organization, to interact with each other in a way that rewards and deepens connections among them. Put another way, “play” in the context of work can be anything that’s a pleasant, temporary distraction from work, which may include:

Walking: Walking is not only great exercise, but it changes the scenery around you and gives you something else to think about, other than what’s around your desk and what deadlines might be approaching. Even the slightest change in scenery can empower your mind to focus and do the work it needs to do subconsciously, which can’t be done when you’re just staring at your phone or at sitting at a desk all day.

Talking: In numerous bios on Abraham Lincoln, including David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, there’s a story about Lincoln inviting an old friend from Illinois to come to visit the White House during the Civil War. Lincoln talked to his friends for hours, with his friend barely saying a word. Sounds like a waste of a visit, right? But it wasn’t. Just in the process of talking, Lincoln unburdened himself and began to think of new solutions to the many challenges he faced.

Listening to music: It’s a fact that music can be a mood booster. So whether it’s listening to your favorite playlist on Spotify or sharing some songs you like with your co-workers, this is the quickest and easiest way to boost your mood while at work. By taking your mind off things for a while, you end up more productive in the hours following your music break. Listening to music or sharing playlists is also something that can benefit employees who work in a distributed workforce, which now includes 8 million people in the United States who now work from home.

Group Meditation and Yoga: Of the items on this list, the ultimate de-stressor. All you need to do is search for “mindfulness” to understand the current craze out there for everyone feeling overstressed by modern life. There’s a good reason for this: It works. And if you’re looking to de-stress your employees while also giving them a group bonding experience, a yoga class or group meditation program is a great way to start. Especially for the younger generations like Millenials and Gen Z, who are more familiar with the mindfulness movement.

Playing Video Games: If you’ve read anything by Jane McGonigal, or watched her numerous presentations, including this one, you’ll know that video games are not a waste of time. McGonigal also points out that playing certain video games have boosted altruism among children and their willingness to help others after a short time playing them. Gaming, is especially important for the Gen Z members of the workforce who grew up playing video games in one way, shape, or form. Playing video games together allows for the kind of social bonding and fun that can spur creativity and higher productivity at work.

Unstructured Free Time (self-directed): Out of everything on this list, this is the easiest to implement and the most straightforward: Your employees have fifteen minutes (or more) to do anything they choose that’s not related to the work they’ve been assigned. This is particularly useful for distributed workforces where arranging a group activity at the office might not be possible, although I encourage you to try some of the other options here, like gaming or listening to music, first in that specific case.

Book Club: Here’s one example that can also do especially well with a distributed workforce — that is, one that’s partly or all remote. Having a place for them to discuss ideas online, whether it’s a forum or something else, allows for them to better connect with each other. With a book club, employees who might not otherwise see each other face-to-face get an opportunity to connect instead over shared ideas and likes and dislikes that are discovered in discussions involving the book.

The point here isn’t so much the specifics of how the employees choose to play. Or even how you choose to implement play at work. That will depend on how and where your employees work together, whether it’s in an office or remotely, and your management style. The point is that the employees stop what they’re doing In terms of work and take the time out of their busy day to relax, which generates the team building, stress relief, and boost in productivity that we’re ultimately looking for. As Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor wrote in their book Primed to Perform, which measures and quantifies the effect play has in the workplace,  “Great leaders inspire curiosity and encourage experimentation.”

If all this sounds like what the school system in Finland does, that’s because what I’m proposing is exactly that.

As the author Cal Newport suggests in his book, Deep Work, people only have about four hours of solid mental bandwidth that they can expand on any given day. After they’ve used that bandwidth up, the results they will produce are less likely to be of the kind of quality an organization would need to remain profitable.

You might have a lot of questions given all this, the chief among them being “Why fifteen minutes? Why not an hour? Why not the whole day?” In which case, there are two responses I would ask you to think about. First, and this is one of those large scale changes I mentioned at the start, if you can compress the workday for your employees into four hours instead of nine and have them be just as productive and happy, the question I would ask you is: Why not just do that? The standard nine to five job is something leftover from the days of Taylorism and the assembly line. There is nothing that says what works in the early 20th Century will work for the early 21st Century workplace. In fact, most evidence found in investigations of Taylorism say it didn’t work much back then either.

But let’s assume no one is ready to make that change because no one ever wants to be first. 15 minutes of play is easy to digest and try. It’s easy to understand for those above you who may also need to consider and approve of this effort. We know our employees are stressed, anxious, and overworked. So why not try 15 minutes of play, per hour of work, and see what happens?