The Key to Successful Remote Work? More Play.

By Corey Schultz, Unsettled Experience Leader & Lifestyle Incubator Facilitator

Part of the reason I like to play games so much is because I’m so desperately afraid of failure. 

That might sound ironic to some people, I realize, since the objective of most games requires that players literally put themselves in a position to fail. But smarter people than myself, like Will Wright, creator of popular computer games like The Sims and Spore, actually say that gameplay gives us the opportunity to explore real world scenarios but with a very low cost of failure.  

In other words, games take the fear out of failing; the possibility of surviving failure is why we play games at all… it’s what actually makes them fun!

The value of failure, in general, is by no means a new concept. We’ve all heard the cliches about “failing forward”, or how Thomas Edison never failed; he just created 10,000 ways to not make a lightbulb. The benefit of failure as a component of learning is well documented and studied throughout history. And play provides a safe space to experiment with failure, which is part of the reason why companies like Google have offices famously replete with free food, ping pong tables, and scooters. 

As kids, play teaches us empathy, teamwork, logic, the value of rules and fairplay. And at work, play signals to your employees that creativity and collaboration are valued over neckties and deference.  And, if nothing else, it just makes us happier to come to work.

For my first “real” job after college, I wrote grants for a small children’s museum in Illinois. Our mission was to “inspire the love of learning through the power of play.” And play we did! During breaks, we turned our offices into a mini golf course, and even our partners and donors were invited to play with us behind the scenes!

These days, though, in our digital world, I’ve begun to consider play as only an ancillary part of my professional life, something that’s just part of my own, individual process. That is, until, last week when I logged in to the inaugural Welcome Call for Unsettled’s Global Passport program. This month’s theme? The Power of Play

As a Global Experience Leader for Unsettled and the Lead Facilitator of our monthly Lifestyle Incubator Virtual Retreat, I should probably admit that I’d known about this theme for weeks. I helped develop it! But it wasn’t until our first call on Wednesday that I was really struck by the full power of this theme, in this format, during this time in our history

And that’s what I want to talk about

The Remote Learning Challenge.

Thanks to Coronavirus, the number of employed Americans who are presently working from home at least part-time is around 70%. And by some estimates, as much as one-fifth of the global workforce will continue to work remotely even after the pandemic is over.

It seems to many as if we are on the verge of a brand new work revolution.

And that may be true. But there’s actually nothing new about it…

The term “telecommuting” was first coined in 1973, and proposed as a means of easing traffic congestion in major cities. After that, working from home was instituted in short bursts but never really topped about 3% of the workforce. Then, in 2013, it all abruptly ended. At the time, recently appointed Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer put the brakes on all remote work at her company in a memo that read, “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home…We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” Soon after, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Best Buy, and other companies followed suit and nixed their work-from-home programs that year, and offices in Silicon Valley became known as flashy and extravagant Gardens of Eden, hubs of creativity and play – spaces where you never needed or wanted to leave – all in the name of productivity.

From their comfortable corner offices, bosses, managers, and big-whigs of some of the world’s most innovative companies were collectively saying the same thing: work-from-home doesn’t actually work. In their eyes, their employees who were working remotely were less productive, wasted more time, and took longer breaks — a perfect trifecta of sins and buzzwords to scare off even the most audacious shareholders.

But to me, these grand work-from-home experiments were always going to fail. Of course they were; they were set up to. Because even though they were playing a totally different game, nobody thought to adjust the rules.

As I write this, I am listening to my girlfriend, Sarah, teach in her virtual classroom from the other side of the living room door. The school district here in Memphis, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars to ensure that all students have access to virtual learning to start the school year. As part of their plan, all students, Kindergarten through High School are required to log in to their virtual classrooms every day from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, with a 30 minute break for lunch. The younger kids also get a 30 minutes for recess, which, in Sarah’s school at least, means watching half-hour videos of a costumed moose dance across the computer screen.

These students are as young as five years old. Yet they’re expected to sit still in the same chair for six hours at a time! All day long, they’re asked to squint at the same screen at the same overworked teacher, politely muting and unmuting themselves between their turns to speak (something that even informed adults have problems doing!). To say nothing of the fact that their brothers and sisters are probably crammed into the same room, doing the same thing.


The Case For Play in Remote Learning & Remote Working

In all these scenarios, it’s as if the people calling the shots are asking us to pretend like we’re still sitting in our classrooms or at our cubicles, and somehow hoping that we don’t notice that absolutely f*cking everything is different. 

We are still managing telecommuters and remote workers exactly the same way that we manage people in physical offices and classrooms. 

Since 1973, we’ve been asking the same question: can telecommuting work? Instead, what we should be asking is how can telecommuting work?

So. What’s the answer? It’s the same as when those sexy Silicon Valley companies revolutionized the workplace a decade ago. We must, if only temporarily, lower the cost of failure by relearning how to play in a virtual world. 

Because that’s what works.

Back in the 1930’s a group of three students at Caltech lit part of their dorm on fire playing around with rocket fuel. They were quickly kicked off campus. But, recognizing their potential, the school helped them acquire their own space to continue to pursue their curiosities freely and safely. Smart move… 

What’s that space called today? NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This is exactly the innovative, playful, “yes, and…” approach that we need in this new virtual revolution: a space that recognizes the value of failure and experimentation, and people in charge who say, “Go ahead. Try and burn it down. There’s nothing to lose.” 

How We Play (Virtually) at Unsettled

In one of our first sessions of the Unsettled Global Passport we all took a little quiz to discover our “play personalities,” According to the results, most of us are “explorers” — no surprise there, given Unsettled history of travel and curiosity. In the mix, too, were creators, storytellers, inventors, and more. But our robust appetite for exploration demonstrates to me why, in my years as Global Experience Leader, I have witnessed innumerable playful, experimental, and failure-forgiving moments leading Unsettled experiences, both virtually and in person. 

In the days since COVID, I’ve watched as participants log in to our opening Welcome Calls, not knowing what to expect. And through the course of 31 days, they collectively develop a new and unique online shared culture, make genuine connections, and create a space to be open and vulnerable with each other, and even celebrate failure. Through both the serious discussions and playful moments, they begin to find comfort in the unknown, and clarity on their next steps.

Unsettled has really always been a playground, even when we were traveling. It’s a space for people to “try on” new realities, ask big questions and be comfortable not having all the answers. It’s a space for those fearless explorers to get lost, play, fail, and ultimately learn. Today, our community continues to practice and embrace those same principles… Only now, instead of Cape Town, we’re playing in three of our own small corners of the internet.

Our Lifestyle Incubator is a space where pillow forts become cloud-piercing castles. Here, you play by dissecting all the building blocks of your life and thoughtfully putting them back together — a safe space to ask what’s next and give yourself the time to carefully design a life you love.

Second, our Global Passport is the neighborhood park – a massive virtual space filled with opportunities to connect with new friends across the globe, grow our imaginations, and discover new ways to play.

Lastly, our Mindfulness for Remote Work Program is our version of finger painting — a place for restorative, quiet play amid a hectic, fast-changing world – a purpose-filled, thoughtful break from the noise happening outside.

And, of course, our in-person retreats are patiently waiting in the wings for the world to open up again, so we can make the mountains of Medellin and the beaches of Bali the backdrop of our next brilliant performance!

And this is just what we’ve developed so far. Every day our community gives us new ideas and approaches to learning and working together online. Are you giving yourself the space to fail? Where have you been playing these days? What contributions will you make as we begin to design a new, online world?

Ready to experience it for yourself? Sign up today for Unsettled’s virtual experiences and come play with us.

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