Say Goodbye to Burnout & Hello to Board Games

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In this special feature, TenFour co-founder, Jay Brennan, looks at the many unexpected benefits board games bring to business. We're thrilled to share Jay's thoughts below; be sure to check out more of his IT industry HR industry experience and expertise on LinkedIn.

If you've spent any time in the workplace, you know how some people play games to advance their careers: gossiping, backstabbing, stealing ideas. But countless books, videos, and articles have been devoted to answering the timeworn question of how to combat passive aggression and toxic behaviors in the workplace. The opposite question is far more interesting, fun, and beneficial: how can employers create a healthy workplace built on trust, respect, and having each other's backs?

Over the years I've come to believe in a simple, but unconventional, answer: board games. Why is this? How can taking 45-60 minutes a couple of times a week to play games usually associated with casual fun help cultivate company culture, strengthen employee bonds, and tighten a team's ability to function at its best?

We are social creatures. Play is recognized as a key social skill for a child's development. Animals—even fully-grown adults—indulge in play in the wild as a way to create social bonds and learn. We thrive on contact with others and when we share common interests and values, it strengthens the bonds we form with each other. Making the right games available in the workplace is one of the best ways to open new lines of communications between teams, take a break from the day, keep your team's collective mind oiled and ready to go, and enjoy a moment of fun in the middle of a stressful day.

TenFour operates within a competitive industry and the work can be demanding. But there is a group of us that play together once or twice a week and I've seen firsthand the positive effect these experiences have on the morale and working relationships of the people within the group. When different colleagues are united in a common game goal they naturally foster a closer working relationship and problems that would have once seemed complex are often simplified through open communication.

Games mimic many work situations in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. There's strategy and planning, there's coordinating win-win outcomes. There's negotiating deals, ferreting out who's bluffing, and working together toward a common goal. According to a 2015 study from Dimensional Research, nearly 65% of the 750 business professionals surveyed collaborate multiple times a day and 52% reported that it was critically important to their work. Games designed to encourage interaction help foster those collaborative relationships by informing participants of each other's likes, dislikes, attitudes, and more.

You can also learn a tremendous amount about someone from watching them play a game. Do they accept defeat gracefully? Do they win gracefully? Who takes charge and who leads? Who demonstrates deep strategic thinking? So many things that help you win a game have direct correlations to workplace skills. If someone's a sore loser there's a good chance that they won't handle workplace setbacks with grace and equanimity. If someone complains about not getting the cards or resources they need to win, they may be more likely to be frustrated when their ideas don't prevail over others.

And managers, you'd be wise to join in and play, too! There's a reason why so many corporate events start with "ice breaking" or "team building" games. Because they're created for fun and bound by rules these games establish a more inclusive environment that removes some of the traditional boundaries and encourages participants to get to know one another as people. Playing a board game with a new employee not only provides them with a low-stakes way of getting to know their new teammates, but provides you with valuable insight into how they think and react to different situations.

Moreover, living that dynamic in the workplace can help boost a team's camaraderie and performance. University of Warwick's Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy discovered in a 2015 study that happier employees are 12% more productive on average than a control group on average, with some participants experiencing a near 20% boost in productivity. Games can play an integral role in reducing stress and creating a happier employee less prone to suffer health setbacks, including heart disease according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, and the common cold or flu, according to another study from Psychosomatic Medicine.

So, I've convinced you of the benefits, but how should you get started? Luckily, the last decade has seen board games enter a golden age of variety and quality, but you need to choose your games wisely. Some are HR disasters waiting to happen (I'm looking at you, Cards Against Humanity), and some take too long to play. Some, like Monopoly, encourage competitive behavior that doesn't build cohesion as much as destroy it.

Creative types might respond well to more social games that test their imagination and outside-the-box thinking, while more reserved colleagues might enjoy cooperative games where they can play as part of a team, and larger games that task a group with accomplishing a single strategic objective are great for seeing how the participants' social dynamic evolves.

The best part of games is that there's something for everyone. Looking for a game to fit your team? There's no one-size-fits-all approach to finding the games that might work best for your team, but I've listed a few of my favorites and their benefits below. Happy gaming!

  • Dixit
    Dixit is a fun, fast, easy to learn and play game that uses fanciful and mysterious picture cards. One player selects a card, places it face down, and then says something about the card—a word, a sentence, a song title, a person, a quote—it can be anything. The other players select and play cards from their hands they think most closely matches the original, the cards are mixed together, and players vote on which is most likely the original card based on what they know. This is a great game to play with a group that's just getting to know one another in a fun, low-stakes environment where imagination is key to victory.

  • Decrypto
    In Decrypto two teams of "spies" select four secret words and are tasked with decoding different sequences aloud using those words, but without cluing the opposing team in to what those words are. Teams can triumph over one another by collecting clues over time and guessing the other team's words, but beware! Mistakes in deciphering the sequences results in disaster. This game is well-suited to cultivating teamwork, imaginative thinking, and listening skills, and rewards players who are able to put themselves in the minds of their teammates. Since participants are collaborating over several rounds and always trying to guess what players are thinking it's a great way for small teams to get to know one another.

  • Werewords (or One Night Ultimate Werewolf or The Resistance)
    There is a slew of games that use social deduction and bluffing as basic mechanics and they all work on a similar premise. One team—usually the bad guys—has perfect knowledge of their allies and enemies, while the other team—usually the good guys—outnumber the bad guys, but don't have nearly as much information or know who are their allies. All of the players appear to be working toward the same goal (in Werewords it's guessing a secret word by asking questions), but beware! The bad guys are secretly trying to sabotage the group's efforts, so questions abound about who to trust. These games encourage logical thinking and also test players' intuition, cooperation, and ability to adapt. They also create many humorous situations in which a team is surprised to find who they believed to be an ally was truly an enemy all along.

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