Updated: Jul 8
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from our latest ebook "Level Up: 6 Tips for Using Gamification to Build a Culture of Learning." In the ebook, we explore different game-inspired principles learning and development leaders can use to make employees crave and share learning. You can download the full version for free.
TIP #4: Let 'em play in the sandbox
Game mechanic: Sandbox Effect
Why was a sandbox so fun when you were a kid?
Objectively, there’s nothing inherently cool or fun about it. It’s a box of sand. What makes it great for kids is finding what you can create, do, learn, and explore when introducing different things into it. Toss in some water and a few plastic tools and all of a sudden you can imagine a new world.
For many of us, the sandbox is now a distant memory. As adults working an average of 47 hours per week, it’s no wonder we don’t have time for the kind of “free play” and exploration we enjoyed as kids.
But even in those long work weeks, we need breaks.
A recent Baylor University study found that employees who took frequent, short breaks not only experienced better health and job satisfaction but were also more likely to look for ways to engage with the company outside of their assigned tasks.
And though work distractions can sometimes get out of hand, we don’t have to accept them as lost time. Could we turn them into something beneficial for employees and the company instead?
That’s exactly where a gamification principle called the sandbox effect comes into play. The idea is to appeal to individuals’ sense of curiosity by providing an open environment where they can explore freely.
Here are a few strategies you can use to implement the sandbox effect to drive a culture of learning in your organization.
STRATEGY 1: Provide structured distraction
Arcade games and ping pong tables have been all the craze in “fun” workplaces for the last 10 years. Why? When implemented in a structured way, games can be highly beneficial for building team cohesion and encouraging friendly competition. Some games are even great for working as a team and accomplishing goals that transfer from the game room to the boardroom.
Games naturally spark internal curiosity because people either want to learn how to play them or determine their level of mastery, either in relation to others or within themselves.
Providing structured distractions through things like games gives employees a sandbox in which they can (literally) play and discover new skills, achieve a new level of mastery, make connections with others, or strengthen team bonds that will help the organization.
Focus in on games and activities that encourage teamwork to solve complex challenges.
STRATEGY 2: Encourage company-wide distractions
Every company wants a smarter, more creative, and confident workforce. In those moments when employees need to disconnect from the demands of their jobs, offer things that might work for their benefit.
Have you ever held impromptu roundtable discussions at typical times of the day when people take a break? You could do something like listen to the latest Hidden Brain podcast or any other interesting media and simply gather
thoughts and opinions. Provide snacks and beverages and make it optional.
Let employees know that the “event” is intended to be a break from the grind. You’ll create a sandbox that piques curiosity, feels disconnected from the demands of the day, and engages people on a different level.
A word of warning...
These types of activities are most reflective of the sandbox effect when they
provide a true break. If you make them mandatory or too rigid, employees will
only engage as much as they need to in order to get back to their real work. Make them fun and optional, and your employees will want to participate.
STRATEGY 3: Transform distraction into passion
As mentioned earlier, employees will find ways to create space and distraction from their day-to-day obligations. In the absence of sanctioned games, optional discussion groups, or activities that are viewed as acceptable by the organization, people will find creative ways to still get the mental space they need without getting in trouble.
While the creativity should probably be applauded, it’s not really helping anyone if an employee determines the longest possible route to take to get back to his or her desk after a restroom break. What if that time could be spent working on employees’ passion projects?
Providing time for employees to experiment, get lost on Wikipedia, or engage their colleagues in non-task-related conversations sends the message that your company values learning at all levels—and it could lead to your next big breakthrough.
For years, companies like 3M and Google have allowed employees to use portions of their paid workday to pursue their own passions, and this freedom has led to some of their biggest developments, from Post-It Notes to Gmail.
Imagine a few of your employees discover an online course on HTML basics during a break. Coding isn’t part of their job, but they’ve always wanted to build a website. If your company encourages learning, you could provide time and resources for them to do the online course. Maybe those employees end up building a site for a friend’s business, but it can still benefit the company because those employees will feel accomplished and have a more positive perception of you as the employer.
That could certainly lead to a boost in productivity and effort from them.
At Mindspace, we bring the sandbox effect to life by allowing people to work on personal development, passion projects, or play games when they need to disconnect from the rigors of the workday.
For us as a group, this provides opportunities for the outside world to influence our work. Someone who disconnects by playing a game on their phone might discover a new way to bring a certain game mechanic to a client project down the road. Another employee who has a passion for all things Disney might learn something inspirational that influences a brainstorming session.
Making space for curiosity: Convincing leadership
We get it, not every organization is going to accept these distractions willy-nilly. Here’s one way to get started:
Set aside time once a month for a cross-sectional team to get together to solve a
business-related problem. Invite developers and marketing experts to dream up a new campaign, or have HR work with your design team to dream up a new homepage user flow.
Bring people together that normally don’t work together. Then celebrate wins that come out of these meetings, emphasizing the unique makeup of the teams.
By providing employees with different ways to engage their sense of curiosity (i.e., using the “sandbox effect” to your advantage) and make use of their distraction time, you help to create a culture of learning where employees look forward to coming to work each day.