Sub-theme 35: Inclusion of Play in Work Organizations: a Hitch or a Prize?

Lyndon Garrett
Boston College, USA
Jinia Mukerjee
Montpellier Business School, France
Sarah Harvey
University College London, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

The development of inclusive organizations calls for practices that challenge traditional conceptions of work. One of the most striking developments in organizations in the past few decades has been the inclusion of play, an activity historically considered antinomical to work (Taylor, 1911). With organizations seeking to optimize performance and efficiency, play has typically been seen as a deterrent to positive firm outcomes (Mainemelis & Altman, 2010; Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). As Henry Ford famously stated, which was later adopted as the Ford philosophy: “When we are at work, we ought to be at work. When we are at play, we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two. When the work is done, then the play can come, but not before” (as cited in Collinson, 2002: 276). The rational, bureaucratic paradigm of modern capitalism relegated play to merely a frivolous, mindless, and unproductive activity with no purpose other than having fun, taking a break from work, and being with friends (Statler et al., 2009). Max Weber (1904/1958) argued that the prerational frivolity of play and the rational efficiency of bureaucracy are ultimately incommensurable.
However, this narrow view of play at work has expanded over the past few decades with growing efforts to humanize the workplace. The notion of organizational life now represents “a site for the search for ‘personal wellness’, a place and time where ‘well-being’ is defined and self-expression actively encouraged, where ‘happiness’ is sought through a proliferation of techniques celebrating the self” (Costea et al., 2005: 141). As a result, the use of play in relation to management and organizational settings has received increasing interest, for instance, by relating play to ‘wellness’ (Butler et al., 2011; Costea et al., 2005). The integration of work and play became a trend around the emergence of Silicon Valley, with firms providing playful environments as a respite from the long hours people worked. In a way, this was like work taking over one’s play time. Over time, work and play have become increasingly enmeshed. With millennials’ desire to balance work with play, freedom, and social involvement (Cennamo & Gardner, 2008; Loughlin & Barling, 2001; Smola & Sutton, 2002), and their penchant for video games and play at work (Turco, 2016), play is progressively becoming a way of doing work, which calls for more serious research enquiry on the play-work relationship.
The inclusion of play at work has been backed by recent research that shows play’s beneficial effects on employees’ health and well-being, affective experience, job satisfaction, work motivation, service quality, and creativity (Amabile, 1996; Chesbrough, 2006; Karl & Peluchette, 2006; Mainemelis & Dionysiou, 2015; Mainemalis & Ronson, 2006; Statler et al., 2009; Statler et al., 2011). Many of the positive effects stem from the profound relational experience of being in play with others. Play is a deeply human experience, which has the capacity to connect people regardless of differences in background, personality, religious beliefs, or political ideology (e.g., Dumas et al., 2013). In play, external differences lose relevance as people see and connect with each other as fellow humans, fostering feelings of openness and inclusion (Sutton-Smith, 1997). As Sandelands (2010) describes, “In play, the boundaries that usually isolate one person from another – the identities that distinguish them as individuals – are overcome by the life of community” (p. 76).
However, leveraging the potential benefits of play to cultivate inclusion, and avoiding potential for exclusion caused by play, requires a deeper understanding of how to cultivate the inclusion of play in work. Existing research has distinguished the main types of play that take place in work organizations. Thus, diversionary play, consisting of light playfulness that provides respite and breaks from work (Edery & Mollick, 2009; Roy, 1959) has been set apart from serious play – playing with work tasks to come up with innovative ideas for improving work output (Schrage, 1999; Statler & Oliver, 2008). Much of the past research on play has looked at play that workers created themselves (e.g., Burawoy, 1979; Roy,1959). When play is self-initiated in this way, however, managers may find it in defiance to their authority, even though it may actually lead to higher productivity (Fleming, 2005; Fleming & Sewell, 2002).
Conversely, with the advent of the gaming culture, many modern organizations have embraced ‘gamification’ – mandatory games and playing controlled by the managers to increase employee productivity (Mollick & Rothbard, 2014). Research on manager-led or organizationally sponsored initiatives to promote play at work has found mixed results. Although some employees enjoy and appreciate these initiatives, others are resistant and skeptical. For example, Fleming (2005) found that many employees disliked company-sponsored fun, considering it inauthentic and fake. Indeed, some organizations adopt an ideology of play to appease the millennial workforce, but impose such work demands that play simply remains a managerial ‘lip service’ that rarely happens. Efforts to incorporate more play around the work, such as by putting a foosball table in the breakroom, rather than making the work itself more playful, can be seen as trying to hide the unpleasant nature of the work – the gamification literature compares this to “chocolate covered broccoli” (Bruckman, 1999).
All of these cases suggest tensions between managerial control and employee autonomy. It also raises the question – what are the limits of integrating play at work, and are all types of play acceptable in work organizations? In some organizations, management and employees alike fully embrace play (Hunter et al., 2010; Mukerjee & Metiu, 2018). However, we lack a comprehensive understanding of how to mix work and play without undermining the work or corrupting the play. This sub-theme intends to further the conversation around (1) how various forms of play can be mixed with work processes, (2) how and to what extent play can cultivate inclusion in organizations (or when it might create exclusion), and (3) the potential limits and challenges of including play in work organizations.

This sub-theme invites interdisciplinary contributions, both conceptual and empirical, that enrich our understanding of the inclusion of play in organizations. Potential themes include, but are not limited to, the following dimensions of play/work-interactions:

  • What are the mechanisms of integrating play and work? What are the limits and challenges in this integration (when play is no longer play, or work is no longer work)?

  • How does play support or hinder key organizational processes? How does play change the ways individuals, groups, and organizations work?

  • What are the ways in which play and games boost processes of cooperation and competition and create a more inclusive organization?

  • What are the potential dark sides of integrating play and work? How might play pose barriers to inclusion?

  • How can playful practices at the sustain organizational creativity, increase legitimacy and reputation in the field, and create distinctiveness for creative professionals?

  • How does the inclusion of play at work create tensions between managerial control and employee autonomy?



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Lyndon Garrett is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, USA. He studies relational dynamics in groups and teams, with a focus on interpersonal processes such as interaction rituals, competition, play, and role performance. He draws primarily on qualitative methods to explore unique contexts, such as sports, theatre, and police departments. Lyndon seeks to gain insights from these contexts on how to cultivate meaningful and authentic human connection in organizations. His research has been published in top academic and practitioner journals including ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Harvard Business Review’, and ‘Sloan Management Review’.
Jinia Mukerjee is an Assistant Professor at Montpellier Business School, France. She studies how individuals and groups work together to sustain innovative work, primarily using ethnographic methods. She is particularly interested in the way play unfolds and coexist with innovative work. Jinia also studies the role of psycho-markers in the entrepreneurial process. Her work has been published in ‘Journal of Small Business Management’ and ‘Small Business Economics’.
Sarah Harvey is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at University College London, United Kingdom. She studies the dynamic processes through which groups and teams engage in creative and knowledge work, focusing on group creativity, group diversity and play. Sarah engages primarily in qualitative research, and her work has been published in leading international journals including ‘Administrative Science Quarterly’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Experimental Social Psychology’, and ‘Research in Organizational Behavior’. She is on the editorial boards of the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Administrative Science Quarterly’, ‘Journal of Organizational Behavior’, and ‘Small Group Research’.