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PLAY CONSULTING’S MARCUS THORNLEY

Why everything you ever thought about work is wrong

At Cooper Parry we search high and low for inspired new thinking, disruptive voices and ways to drive our high performance culture in today’s fast-changing workplace. People engagement is at the heart of everything we do and that’s why, when we recently caught up with Marcus Thornley, everything resonated so soundly. He challenges many of the assumptions people make about work, introduces fascinating personal insights and generally gets you thinking. Take a read:

One significant event stands out when delving through Marcus Thornley’s personal history. In the late 1990s, an uncle left him £1,000 in his will. Coincidentally, Marcus needed £1,000 to take a journalism course – something he desperately wanted to do, but until then had not been able to afford. He enrolled, bagged his NCTJ qualification and won his first journalism job. “That £1,000 changed my life,” he says.

Skip forward 20 years and Marcus now runs his own company, Play Consulting, which he founded in 2014. But that £1,000 gift – and the way it altered the course of his life’s journey – is never far from his thoughts. “Without the journalism course, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he says. “I was bobbing around with no focus, going nowhere.”

However, his uncle’s modest legacy did more than put Marcus on the right track. In many ways, it created the guiding ethos behind Play Consulting – a company that’s on a mission to make work motivating, fulfilling and engaging for both its staff and its clients.

At the heart of Play sits a unique learning-and-development policy, inspired by Uncle Mike. Marcus explains: “Everyone here gets £2,000 a year to spend on learning. They can spend it all on work-related training if they want, but we encourage them to invest at least half of it on learning that’s nothing to do with work. It could be yoga, bricklaying, plumbing, sailing – whatever. None of us are here forever and we have a responsibility to unlock our colleagues’ potential, wherever that may lie.”

Clearly, Play is a company with a fascinating ethos. Encouraging your staff to develop skills and interests that are entirely unrelated to the company’s financial targets – and then footing the bill – is not the norm. So, what’s going on here?

As a society, we have managed to turn work into a monster, argues Marcus: “Just one in six employees are satisfied with their jobs. For most people, work is disappointing and unengaging. For some, it is almost like indentured slavery. We’re supposed to have built a world where work works for us, but who in their right mind would design work as it is today?”

Three words neatly sum up the problem, according to Marcus. The first two are ‘human resources’. “If you think about it, it’s a revealing descriptor,” he says. “It shows we have accepted the idea that people are an expendable resource, like paper or printer ink. I can imagine the pharaohs calling their pyramid-building slaves their ‘human resources’. And when the AI robot overlords take over, no doubt they’ll have a Human Resources algorithm. But in all seriousness, if we live in a society where companies regard people as a resource, then it’s easy to see why so many of us are unhappy at work.” The third word that highlights the problem, according to Marcus, is ‘career’. “The idea of a career is restrictive and too linear,” he says. “‘Career’ is a toxic and dangerous word because it gets people thinking they’re on a conveyer belt, with a finite destination, that they can’t get off.”

Today, Marcus believes that companies that attract the best people are doing something different. They offer a sense of belonging; they treat colleagues like customers or even family members, and they focus on realising human potential and providing meaning at work.

Marcus gives a powerful example of how Play Consulting’s training budgets, provide meaning: “One of my colleagues used his training budget to learn how to swim. He shared videos of his journey, and after ten weeks, he passed his course. Everyone watched his progress and we all felt like proud family members when he achieved his goal. Who knows? Maybe one day he’ll swim with his grandchildren, all because his colleagues unlocked that possibility here at Play.”

But how did Play Consulting’s founder discover his ethos? It was an intriguing voyage of discovery. After his journalism course, he took a job at a local newspaper. Next, he joined DMGT, owner of the Daily Mail and, at the time, Teletext. Marcus became a sub-editor at Teletext in 2001 and, as the internet began to torpedo the business, he moved to Teletext Mobile, a text-alert service. From there he joined Buongiorno, a specialist in mobile-phone content, where he ran the production-innovation team. And then he moved to video-games company Electronic Arts, a job that took him to San Francisco.

Working for EA in the US taught Marcus a great deal and gave him the confidence to launch his own company. “There are pros and cons to life in San Francisco,” he says. “A massive pro is the belief that you can do anything. Everyone is hustling and everyone seems to believe anything is possible. That energy is infectious, and it made me start to think that I, too, could launch a start-up because it seemed like a normal thing to do.”

But what would his new company do? The answer came from his experiences in the mobile-games industry. “Around 95% of revenue in mobile games comes from free-to-play games,” he explains. “The game is free, so high volumes of people download it. The challenge is to drive engagement that can lead to monitisation. To get good engagement, you need to build a habitual relationship with gamers. At EA, we got really good at driving engagement by encouraging habit formation and behavioural change.

“I started thinking: if we can do this in games, why can’t we use the same techniques at bricks-and-mortar companies? Why can’t we drive engagement and behavioural change at a customer and employee level? That would be valuable and interesting, and there would definitely be a demand for it.”

Marcus returned to the UK and launched Play Consulting, focusing on building apps and websites for other companies to boost their engagement. However, over time, he discovered that his company could offer much more than smart engagement-boosting apps and websites. The critical value of Play lies in its ability to drive cultural change through consultation. The digital products solidify this change, but it’s the clients’ exposure to Play’s mindset and ethos that really gets the ball rolling.

“We started working for large companies and building apps and websites for them. It was very successful,” says Marcus. “But the companies would come back to us and say: ‘You guys are great. You think in different ways. You’re agile and the quality is great.’ They assumed we were special; that we had somehow found special people. But that’s not true. Our team is normal – our CVs are no different from anyone else’s. Then we realised it was Play’s work culture – the nurture, not the nature – that made the difference.”

Forging the right environment and culture to boost employee engagement requires huge mindset changes for some clients, especially if they run their organisations in a traditional way. “Companies are historically arranged in a pyramid structure because it’s a great way to control everyone,” says Marcus. “The CEO sits at the top and the staff sit at the bottom, serving the bosses above them. However, our research and experience show that reverse pyramids are far more effective. If the boss sees her or himself as the ultimate servant of the organisation, you see much greater staff engagement and happiness everywhere. Native American cultures provide a good example of reverse hierarchies. The chief wasn’t the most important person; the chief served the tribe.”

Play is a consultancy, but it has also recently created an off-the-shelf digital product – available to any organisation – to help embed reverse-pyramid structures and drive staff engagement from the bottom up. Called ‘Totem’, it’s a mobile employee-engagement platform, and customers include John Lewis and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

“Through Totem, we’re trying to drive the notion of reverse hierarchy. If you empower people who were traditionally at the bottom of the pyramid, you get genuine emotional engagement, motivation and happiness. At Play, we talk a lot about autonomy, mastery and purpose. These ideas stem from the work of American author Dan Pink. His thesis, which we buy into, is that there are three things which drive humans – first, autonomy – the ability to make your own decisions. Second, mastery – the belief you’re learning more than you did yesterday. And lastly, purpose – that you’re part of something bigger than you. These are the core tenets of how you drive motivation and happiness at work. And it makes sense because if you imagine life without those things, you see pure misery – utter impotence, zero learning and complete meaninglessness. So, the products we build – including Totem – have to drive feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose from the bottom up.”

Examples of engagement-boosting features within Totem include an unmoderated community newsfeed where anyone in the company can place a post. Marcus says: “This tool sends out a message to all staff that they are valuable authors and deserve a voice”. It also includes a peer-to-peer recognition system where anyone can ‘tip their hat’ to anyone else in real-time. “You can recognise people for small acts of awesomeness,” says Marcus. “But what’s really powerful is that anyone in the team can hand out the kudos – usually it’s a gift that only bosses can give.”

Play Consulting asks for bravery from its clients. Reversing pyramids and empowering team members requires courage, willpower and sometimes, structural change. But the rewards are impressive. Increasing happiness, engagement and fulfilment at work is critical for the health of any organisation, not just because it boosts productivity and attracts talent, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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