David Slayden: Play is No Longer the Opposite of Work

David Slayden: Play is No Longer the Opposite of Work

Executive Director & Founder of a designer-founder accelerator presents a redesign of the 9-to-5 work day and how to best implement play into work culture

David Slayden, BDW
  • 21 august 2015

From Mr. Burns to Office Space’s Bill Lumburgh to the horrible bosses of, well, Horrible Bosses, the hated, controlling, megalomaniacal boss and their miserable, micromanaged underlings have been a staple in movies and on TV for decades. And while these modern office archetypes are played for comedic effect, the sad reality is that it’s funny. And it’s funny because it’s true.  

In the modern work environment, as many as four in 10 full-time employed Americans report working more than 50 hours a week, and 40 percent of workers don’t take all the vacation days they’re entitled to. As technology makes employees accessible to their bosses even after they’ve laid their head on their pillow at night, many, including myself, are concerned about what all of this is doing to productivity, and more importantly for many businesses, creativity.

Study after study shows that long hours don’t necessarily increase productivity. Staying on task at a desk for hours on end doesn’t produce better ideas. So why do so many businesses feel the need to conform to a traditional and, I would argue, stifling work model? Helping their employees to produce better ideas is what all businesses should be striving for in today’s shifting business environment.

It’s important for managers to recognize that work happens differently now than it once did. In many ways, technology is a gift—it helps us to connect and it speeds up tasks that once took hours or days. It’s also something that people need to get some distance from now and then, for a variety of reasons. Cracking down on what a traditional office or factory setting would consider “work avoidance”—taking breaks, going for a walk, talking with coworkers—only makes people resentful. That’s because you’re treating them like children instead of trusted team members. In a knowledge economy it’s time to jettison an assembly line mindset and stop being a boss and start becoming a leader.

Businesses need to get unstuck from the outdated concept of a 40-hour work week, with work days that start and end at the same time each day. When you set clear goals and deliverables with deadlines, everyone knows where they need to go and they can set their own pace to get there. All of us now live in a world of accelerated and continuous change, with hours that often start before 9am, extend beyond 5pm and cross globally different time zones. Offices shouldn’t be a place where people go to log hours, they should be a place where ideas and creativity are supported.

At BDW we begin every project with the question: What will success look like?  Once we’ve all agreed on the answer to this question and the resources needed to answer it, we turn teams loose on the project. Check-ins are scheduled but vary in duration and intensity.  The goal is to answer the question and the relevance, quality, and feasibility of that answer is what matters—not how long it took or what happened in between the beginning and the end. This approach produces exceptional results and builds a truly productive company culture and redefines work.

BDW  psfk

Members of the BDW team at play.

The work day should include time for passive processing. This could be a nap, a game of ping-pong, a bike ride, a brisk walk, or simply doing mindfulness meditation. Employees shouldn’t feel the need to explain how they are spending their time or feel like they are looked down upon for taking the space to process the task at hand and generate ideas. Results should speak for themselves.

Beyond passive processing, employees need room for play and experimentation that will spark ideas and creativity. A risk-averse work environment is also an idea-averse environment. Play and other things that do not look or feel like work (and where mistakes can happen) are actually where the best ideas often originate and develop. We recognize the value of games and play among schoolchildren (and in the military with war games) to accelerate and deepen their learning, so why do we still frown upon it in the office setting? Play is no longer the opposite of work. It is integral to working smarter and better. 


How do you create such a culture? It takes time and a change of mind from equating the amount of time spent working with productivity.  A focus on useful behaviors, practices, and processes produce good outcomes because the most productive work culture is a learning culture—where bosses are guides and employees own successes as well as failures and are also given voice to make things improve and evolve.

It really comes down to a matter of balancing rest and play and work in an interdependent relationship rather than in opposition. Play is not the opposite of work; play is a key component of work. And everyone needs proper rest to function optimally. Today’s companies need to evolve in their mindsets as well as their skillsets and realize that quantity does not ensure quality. In short, they need to stop thinking like 19th century factory bosses and realize that success doesn’t come from wringing the most amount of work hours from their employees. It comes from creating an environment where those employees have the freedom, the trust and the support to do their best work. In such an environment, employees will own their work not just by passing time with it, and companies will see a rise in not only productivity but quality as well.

David Slayden is the executive director of BDW, a designer-founder accelerator focused on innovation through the integration of design, tech, and strategy.

Top and bottom images:

African businessman using mobile phone via Shutterstock 

Relaxed young executives via Shutterstock


+office culture
+work and play

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