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ATD Blog

A Serious Case for More Play at Work

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Imagine that you started a new job a month ago. You are on a hybrid schedule, so you see your colleagues two days a week in the office—except for one person who lives across the country—but most of your interactions take place via Zoom or Slack.

So far, your onboarding has been seamless. You’re feeling confident in your new responsibilities, and while everyone on your team has been very nice and helpful in getting you up to speed, you don’t yet feel like you know them very well.

Now imagine your team just found out that a major client deliverable, which was supposed to be completed in two weeks, needs to be completed in three days. Your carefully planned project schedule is null, and everyone is suddenly under immense pressure. You need to work fast, and you need to work together.

The result? This polite, helpful group of people starts falling apart. They talk over one another and bicker. One person sends out panicked reminders about how much time is left, another tries to take control of the situation and tell everyone else what to do but doesn’t really understand each person’s role. You’re trying to understand what work still needs to be done so you can make a revised plan to meet the new deadline. And your team leader? He’s acting like this is no big deal, just smiling and trying to reassure everyone.

To state it mildly, your team is not handling this crisis well.

How We Show Up at Work

Too often, it takes extraordinary circumstances to understand how our colleagues handle pressure at work, and what their true personalities are like. Differences that may be complementary in normal situations, such detailed thinkers versus big-picture thinkers or people who thrive versus those who freeze under tight deadlines, become fault lines that damage working relationships.


The way we feel, think, and act (or react) in situations is how we “show up,” and we all show up differently when we’re put under pressure. Truly great teams can harness their members’ varied experiences, strengths, and perspectives to solve important problems.

So wouldn’t it be helpful to understand our differences before a crisis hits?

Building Team Resilience Through Play

The concept of playing while at work is controversial. Some people think work time should be all serious, all the time. Others grimace at memories of forced fun—say, a company trivia night or ropes course outing—from previous jobs that fell flat.


However, when used correctly, games and play are essentially problem-solving opportunities. Players must work together to achieve a specific goal within a given set of parameters—instructions, time limits, equipment, and number of people, among others.

In many ways, the dynamics of playing games with colleagues are very similar to workplace dynamics in crunch time. They put you and your colleagues under pressure to work together to solve a problem but in a low-stakes environment where you can see how people show up under different circumstances.

You can learn valuable takeaways about your team dynamics like:

  • Who makes sure the details are flawless and who keeps their eyes on the goal?
  • What hidden strengths emerge?
  • Whose talents and knowledge are complementary?
  • Who thrives under tight deadlines and who needs some extra support?

With these insights, you can figure out how to leverage the range of talents on your team and better prepare the next time the unexpected happens.

An additional benefit? These shared experiences help you get to know each other better, foster a stronger collective identity, and build trust.

Learning, growing as a team, and having fun all at the same time. That’s a win.

About the Author

Alexandra (Alex) Suchman is CEO and co-founder of Barometer XP, a company that uses games to spark insightful conversations about how team members can better communicate and collaborate toward shared goals. Alex leads game sessions that help individuals and teams explore self-awareness and make meaningful, sustainable culture change. Prior to Barometer XP, Alex founded AIS Collaborations, a consulting firm that helped small businesses reach new levels of success through simple systems, stronger organizing techniques, and better planning. She has an MPP from The George Washington University, a BA in psychology from Colby College, and is certified as both a Project Management Professional (PMP) and DISC coach.

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