With the pandemic, our ways of living and working have been turned upside down. From one day to the next, we find ourselves working from the kitchen table, couch, or bedroom. This shift has brought many new challenges—a loss of connection, changes in collaboration, and a need to establish a new normal by adjusting our routines, rituals, and behaviors.

These disruptions have also given us an opportunity to reimagine how we’ll operate in the new normal—and how to design creative processes and incubation periods that serve us best.

A big goal of my work with the Design Ops team here at Dropbox is to help people adapt to this new reality, and make work and life more human and enlightening while bolstering wellness and connection. I want to highlight a mindset that plays a key role in this new working reality: optimism.

Over the past year, we’ve experienced a range of emotions: anger, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, and so much more. And yet, I (a curious optimist) believe that we have a chance to dream up new possibilities so we can look forward positively to the future.

How optimism plays a role in design

In design, optimism can manifest in various ways—an ambitious goal, a mindset, a redesign of a space, or experiences to be more connected, and joyful. It’s more than just expecting positive outcomes—it means actively interpreting and remembering events in a positive light, seeing the big picture, exploring ideas, being open to others, taking more risks and facing difficult tasks, as well as creating enjoyment in the present and seeing possibilities for the future. As human-centered designers, we’re focused on what could be, and not on the countless obstacles that might get in our way. In an essay, Karishma Sheth, creative director at SYPartners, wrote: “Design is a method of envisioning the future, of which optimism is a foundational part,” and with the right tools and methods, we can design a better future. Understood in this way, optimism has important implications for an organization’s resiliency and capability to innovate and grow.

How to design with optimism?

A key mindset that underlies design thinking and allows us to enact optimism—to experiment, iterate, and grow—is playfulness. It can help us transition to the new working world, and brings back an essential sense of joy and belonging after two years of grim news and uncertainty.

Playfulness as a hotbed for creativity and innovation

Playfulness drives us to explore, see new possibilities, and make connections we wouldn’t have made otherwise. It sparks our senses and activates different parts of the brain. In a work context, it encourages creative thinking.

While our working environments are usually not set up for play (instead casting things in a negative light if they don’t have a measurable output), we need to actively design space for it. A 2016 study found that using cues to permit play in meetings enhanced creativity without risking productivity.

Some ideas to start with:

  • On an individual level, plan for periods of play during the workday. Think about what you enjoy doing—whether it’s drawing, playing music, hula hoops, or gardening—and block time in your calendar to do it.
  • Maintain a beginner’s mindset: Walk through the day with open eyes and view your surroundings through a fresh lens. By asking questions and actively listening—without assumptions of what the other person is going to say—you can open up to new ideas and beliefs that will help you see things in a new light.
  • As a team, set aside time for play. In one of our recent Design all-hands, we facilitated a session with breakout rooms. Each team member added sticky notes to a Miro board: one for something they could teach in a minute, and another for skills they’d like to learn. This exercise helped folks learn more about each others’ interests outside of work. Not only did this help us build stronger bonds, it also created intersections and cross-disciplinary dialogue that could spark new ideas.

Playfulness to build more humane connections

Moments of play, particularly for teams, can foster stronger bonds and create an environment for teams to bring in levity and fun. Awareness of a team member’s life both within and outside of work can help you appreciate your similarities, and especially in a virtual-first world, see that you’re not just digital representations.

Some ideas to start with:

  • Ask your team members what each would like to present to the rest of the group. Playing a song on the guitar or piano? Sharing a drawing? Reading poetry? There are no limits!
  • Alternatively, simple activities such as conversation starters or card games designed for deeper conversation (check out our Corporate Tarot Cards) can create an inviting, informal, and inclusive space. They help team members overcome discomfort, build trust, be vulnerable, and express how they currently feel.

Play to spark joy

Focusing on joy is a step toward creating a safe, humane place where people can find meaning and purpose in their work. It also sparks creative energy, which is essential for thriving at work.

We don’t play enough and are often pressured to put aside the things that bring us joy. We work long hours and neglect our “playtime.” Many people don’t even take all of their vacation days, which, a smart person once said, are kind of like our joy days. We often take ourselves and our work far too seriously. By providing people and teams with experiences that engender joy, leaders can tap into the powers that are unleashed.

Simple acts can be helpful in sparking joy throughout the day:

  • Gestures of kindness and gratitude can make a big difference in work relationships and inspire new conversations. Send a thank-you card to someone who’s helped you out. (We’ve built a digital tool for creating something we call “Gratitude Posts.”) This basic courtesy can build more trust and feelings of connectedness and make serendipitous encounters more likely to happen. Encourage these moments of joy by giving your team members a small budget to use when they want to surprise a coworker.

As we move into a new year, and past the initial phase of the new normal, I encourage you to think about how to design your work environment with optimism and playfulness. This is the basis for a healthy community and a catalyst for innovation and joy. All of us can build this muscle if we commit to using it.

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