You don’t have to be serious to be serious

Tammy Gur explains why playfulness is key to creativity, team health, and social capital — and how BBC UX&D reintroduced playfulness remotely. The idea of playfulness in design has been recognised as a stimulant for vibrant innovation culture and healthy teams. Whilst playfulness may seem at odds with the serious business of work, the more conventional ways […]

Tammy Gur explains why playfulness is key to creativity, team health, and social capital — and how BBC UX&D reintroduced playfulness remotely.

The idea of playfulness in design has been recognised as a stimulant for vibrant innovation culture and healthy teams. Whilst playfulness may seem at odds with the serious business of work, the more conventional ways of getting on with work can actually stifle creativity, and prevent the germination of great ideas.

Playfulness offers the right conditions to be creative. It frees the mind from rules and expectations, to look beyond what is known, and imagine what could be.

The BBC’s User Experience and Design (UX&D) team has long defined ‘creativity through play’ as one of its core values. We’re not alone. Companies like Microsoft, Intel, Goldman Sachs, and Boeing have also realised that business success comes from their team’s ability to stay healthy, happy, and innovative.

There’s a rich body of research, writing, and methods — from Harvard Business Review to Lego’s ‘Serious Play’ ­– that make the case for the idea that playfulness leads to better morale, productivity, and team health.

Any tools, technologies or toys that let people improve how they play seriously, with uncertainty, is guaranteed to improve the quality of innovation. You can’t be a serious innovator unless you are willing and able to play.”

Michael Schrage, ‘Serious Play’ (1999)

Then came home working

Since working from home became the norm in March 2020, our team, like many others, has been grappling with its impact on creativity.

At the beginning of the lockdown, the BBC UX&D team showed incredible initiative by running remote activities where playfulness was key. But as time went on the energy, novelty and motivation dwindled.

So eight months into the pandemic, while still working remotely, we wanted to bring playfulness back into the team’s design practice and culture.

Reintroducing playfulness remotely

Our annual team ‘away’ event in November 2020 seemed like a good place to reintroduce playfulness into our practice and culture.

We set out to apply the value of play from planning through to execution. The challenge was made trickier as it was our first go at organizing and running a remote event at scale, and it was for a team of circa 200 creatives.

Step 1: For the people and by the people

We began by making it a team effort. We assembled a working group from across all ranks and disciplines of the team. This helped to ensure engagement and relevance across the team. It also meant that we could share the load. The working group also included representatives from our accessibility team so that everyone could take part and feel included.

Next, we made sure that reinstating our core value of ‘creativity through play’ led to clear outcomes:

  • To empower and motivate the team to do their best work to achieve the BBC’s goals
  • To recharge morale and social capital for a healthy, happy, and high-performing team

Step 2: A theme to match the intent

Together, we scratched our collective heads for a relevant theme: one that would help us recharge, be removed enough from the day-to-day and would open the door to a rich blend of social and practice-related activities.

For that, we picked the theme of holidays. It had a particular resonance for everyone in pandemic times. We called it the ‘UX&D Getaway Get Together’.

***‘UX&D Getaway Get Together’*** event branding | Illustration by Steve Gibbons

It sparked a range of ideas for activities, and also a concept for the visuals and delivery of the event.

The planning working group became the cabin crew, complete with zoom backgrounds of airplane interiors, props, a makeshift uniform, and a vocabulary for presenting every aspect of the event. All participants were encouraged to create their own backgrounds of favourite destinations too. By tapping into the longing for travel with a bit of a wink, it seemed to create a buzz leading up to the event.

The planning working group as cabin crew
The event’s agenda was designed to feel like a flight itinerary

Step 3: Laying out the agenda

Mindful of screen fatigue, we ran the event over 3 half-days, with plenty of breaks. We used a blend of ‘free roaming’ between video rooms, more structured plenary formats, and activities that involved moving around and making stuff. People were encouraged to take part but could also opt-out of activities if they preferred.

We created a dedicated messaging channel for key messages before, during, and after the event. It was also used for random chat, collecting souvenirs from the activities, and we ran ‘a best holidays pics’ competition. In all, it helped to achieve a sense of togetherness.

Step 4: The activities

Activities included inspirational talks about ‘play’, a set of 16 holiday-themed activities that were designed and hosted by people from across the team, a showcase from each team within UX&D, a research activity, and a quirky DIY prize ceremony.

Holiday-themed activities

The guidance we gave the hosts was to make sure their activities were playful, inclusive, related to an aspect of design practice, and encouraged collaboration between participants. Each lasted 40 minutes in video rooms. They included amongst others:

  • the creation of an Olympic torch relay video from different countries
  • a recreation of a B&B experience
  • the design of surreal AR postcards
  • a future casting session

Team showcases from around the world

Celebrating the team’s work is important to the morale of any team. Ahead of the event, we asked each team to create a showcase of their work and team culture in any format, plus a ‘travel agency’ style poster to promote it.

During the event, participants roamed freely between video rooms to talk with the teams of each showcase, and they could watch the showcases in their own time too. The result was impressive.

Just some of the travel agency style posters to promote showcases of the teams from across BBC services

The research activity

As human-centred design practitioners, we used the event to gain insight into how we could best use playfulness in our practice and team culture.

We mined ideas from a carefully crafted research activity. This dug into the questions we had, like:

  • How might we make up for the loss of the informal work conversation?
  • How might we improve creativity in our day-to-day work?
  • How might we enable serendipitous conversations and social connections working remotely?

Like the other activities, this research played around with different formats — even conventional ones like Excel.

The exercise gave us our first set of insights into the things that worked well and those things that are to be avoided.

Concluding thoughts and tips

When team events work, their impact on energy and motivation is noticeable. Our ‘UX&D Getaway Get Together’ event was a success. It proved that a playful approach could deliver a sociable, creative outcome, even in a remote setting and with a sizeable team.

Here is a sample of verbatim feedback:

What is your one takeaway from the team event?

“Remote ‘culture’ is possible!”

“Feeling part of a wider group again”

“Different ways of thinking about problems we have to solve — fresh approaches”

What would you take from the team event into the day job?

“Want to encourage more studio day events with a wider variety of activities. A creative boost generally, really.”

“New ideas around how we can use play within research”

“Remind the team how important play is throughout the process, not just as an icebreaker”

Here are some of our learnings:

Keep focus
Treat the design of your event as a human-centred exercise. Do the preparation to understand the needs and outcomes of the session. Have a clear purpose that informs every aspect: before, during, and after.

Use technology to your advantage
Leverage the remote setting to make the event work better. But be mindful of each tool’s potential problems, and how the tool might exclude certain participants. Try to blend the real world with the virtual wherever possible.

Bring others on board
Involve members from across your teams in the design and delivery. Make the event ownable with a bottom-up approach.

Consider the theme
Don’t underestimate the importance of the theme, and the levers that bring it to life. Things like branding, props, tone can go a long way to making team events rich, memorable and whole.

Ensure constant communication
Allow for fluid communication with and between, the participants. Today’s collaborative tools and messaging are great at enabling a lively shared experience

Our journey continues

We’ve been bathing in a warm fuzzy post-event feeling, but we know this was just a first step. There is still much work to do to build up team health, performance, and creativity.

The next step in our journey is to take the insights we learned in the research activity and translate them into actions that we can apply to our day-to-day ways of working, our idea generation, and our social team interactions.


You don’t have to be serious to be serious was originally published in BBC Design + Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: BBC