42Projects: Trust and Collaborative Play in the Workplace

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—SNAP—the job’s a game! —Mary Poppins

We live in an amazing time of demographic and societal changes, incredible communication and information developments, economic landscape alterations, globalization, and the continuing rise of the knowledge worker — all of which have contributed to the creation of a new world of work.

The Microsoft Office Lync Client Test team has about 85 people representing a wide variety of technical, educational, generational, and cultural backgrounds. The goal of 42projects is to design a program that respects and shines a spotlight on this diversity, and helps to build a high-trust organization that empowers each of these unique individuals to contribute in a way that best suits them and their talents.

As a team, we looked at 3M’s work on 15 percent time, Microsoft’s Out-of-the-Box week and “sprint runs,” Google’s 20 percent time, “sprint runs”, IBM’s innovation jams — and many alternative approaches to better engaging the next gen workforce.

What we found was that there was no single answer, no program, no “initiative” that worked for everyone. The ebb and flow of the product cycle always presented a challenge to some percentage of the team. One size did not fit all.

What we discovered was the effectiveness in trust and collaborative play at solving our challenge. If we could work to create an organization that had fun, trusted one another, and could bring collaborative play in to the workplace, than everyone would be more engaged, more productive, and we could best utilize the diverse talents that our global workforce brought to the organization.

The attributes of effective organizations all find their origins in trust. Gallup uses a Q12 survey to measure workgroup effectiveness and employee engagement. Questions such as, “I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day,” or, “I know what is expected of me at work,” imply a level of trust — not only by the employee for their manager or organization, but reciprocal as well. 

Games have been around for centuries. For example, the game of Go was played in ancient China in 500 B.C. and is for sale along most toy aisles and in game stores, as well as online.  The royal game of Ur was played in the fourth century B.C. On our team, we’ve learned over the years how the introduction of “productivity games” to certain aspects of our work can make things more fun and engage people in new and different ways. 

Gallup does an annual survey on employee engagement — and typically, the numbers have been very similar over the past few years. About 30 percent of employees are engaged at work, with about 55 percent who are passively disengaged, and about 15 percent who are actively disengaged. As generational changes in the workforce continue to evolve, the concerns over engagement continue to rise.

Forty-five percent of Millennials worldwide say they use social networking websites at work, regardless of whether their organization or company prohibits their use.

Two-thirds of teen and Gen Y Internet users use social networking sites; less than 10 percent of 55-63 year-olds do.

The most successful employee engagement techniques—across increasingly diverse employee populations, skill sets, behaviors, generational differences, and cultural backgrounds—are challenging to identify and understand. Our experience has been that games transcend those barriers—collaborative play is universal—and games as a precursor to, or a proxy for trust, are a great way to build a stronger organization. As we design our games to get real work done, the effect is two-fold. People can have fun at work—or, as Gary Hamel suggests in his “moonshot” to Take the Work out of Work, "Human beings are most productive when work feels like play. Enthusiasm, imagination and resourcefulness—the critical ingredients for success in the creative economy—get unleashed when people are having fun. In the future, the most successful organizations will be the ones that have figured out how to blur the boundary between vocation and avocation. Among other things, this will require organizations to better align personal interests and professional responsibilities, to take the drudgery out of work, and to grant employees more control over what they work on.”

Ross Smith has worked in every corner of the software industry for more than 20 years and is currently a Director of Test at Microsoft.

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