Gamification: Is It a Game-Changer for Employee Engagement?

Any student of management sciences knows all worthwhile workplace practices go-around and come-around under new names. Worthless and unproven tenets of management do much the same. As with any hot trends in social sciences, it’s worth separating the hype from the practical benefits. “Gamification” falls into the must-examine category.

For decades, companies have crafted rewards program to promote employee engagement and motivation. End-of-year salary bonuses have been the gold-standard means for management to keep employees devoted to performance metrics January through December. Business schools are chock full of case studies about that CEO who gave everybody in the company a bonus and they became magically successful. The data supporting these findings is often missing.

While there’s yet to be an employee who complains about a cash bonus, rigid and antiquated incentive programs become less effective when measured against broader or longer-term company goals. Companies examining complex drivers behind employee engagement and loyalty are finding predictable bonus plans to be increasingly less cost-effective.

Enter Gamification: A Buzzword or More?

Gamification turns work processes and company-set performance standards into contests, with employee rewards based on tallied scores. The simplest example of a workplace game may be the sales contest for the Cadillac Eldorado in the stage play, Glengarry Glen Ross. The end-of-month top seller of the shoddy real estate the sales team wins the Caddy. As you may recall, second place is nothing great and third place is even worse:

Do I have your attention now?

If you’ve seen the play or the movie, you know that such a contest provides for all types of unintended consequences, including criminal. Even for a low-rent sales operation, it’s not the smartest thought-out “game”. The Glengarry Glen Ross contest points to a larger issue of crafting “games” that aren’t rife with unintended consequences.

As companies have evolved in their human resource practices, and as more women have entered the workforce, motivating employees has required more thoughtful types of contests and rewards systems. Not everybody is looking to trade their well-being for an upscale 1980’s sedan. Health and wellness have become standards of the thoughtful and productive modern company. Enter the 2019 version of workplace “gamification”.

Gamification in Modern Office Context

Modern workplace contests are based upon dynamic, iterative contests attached to social rewards systems. Annual performance bonus systems have been trumped by weekly or monthly mini-contests encouraging teamwork, short-term goal achievement, and higher levels of employee engagement.

Prizes may be tangible rewards such as gift cards or free meals, or recognition such as achievement call-outs in emails and newsletters or visible awards in the office place. Awarding the right to pick out the next company outing location seems to be popular, as does who receives the coveted window offices.

The D10 is an athletic event that pits company teams against one another in
athletic competition, building strong team bonds among participants.

Before the cynical among you insist gamificaton seems juvenile in nature, understand that 75% of employees in a recent U.K. office place survey responded they would want such motivating contests and prizes in their own place of work. The games and rewards that motivate best have shown to vary by employee demographics and job types in the company. “Surprise gifts or rewards” came out on top of most surveys from respondents as to ideal benefits. Gamification is not a one size fits all program.

Despite strong evidence of success, employers have been slow to adapt to this worker expressed desire. One reason plainly is that “games at work” seems like a bad idea to the stalwart boss. Unlike the performance bonuses of yore, “gamification” doesn’t track one-to-one with bottom line ledger results. While scored contests can be applied to direct sales functions, gamification serves broadly to enhance employee engagement and increase quantity or quality of across-company tasks that don’t yield numerically measurable results. “A happy worker is a productive worker” may be a catchy slogan, but it’s hard to measure in ROI.

Conversely, some employees whiff disguised exploitation when games and contests are introduced at the office. They understand management isn’t inventing these activities and contests out of the goodness of their heart or the love of the game. Like when tech companies started introducing Honey Smacks dispensers and air hockey tables — employees came to realize this meant they’d be working late nights.

Free cereal and snacks all day long — like a dream — or is it a nightmare?
(photo credit: Hollis Johnson/BusinessInsider)

While suspicion exists in the adversarial relationship between boss and employee, the weight of evidence is bearing out the benefits of gamification. And while the end goal of gamification is to increase productivity, the pathway should be beneficial to both employer and worker. Each side gains a positive return on invested effort or expense.

Employee Engagement Means Everything

Gallup conducted a report discovering that only 33-percent of U.S. workers label themselves as “engaged” at work. The remainder are either actively disengaged at work (to the point they will work in detriment to their employer) or passively uninterested (they will watch the clock and wait to go to lunch or leave for the day).

The former group is relatively small and beyond help from simple gamification of the workspace. But the second, larger group is literally and figuratively in-play for increased productivity at work. Gallup suggests improving interest among this group of employees represents the single greatest and most-controllable improvement possible to a company’s overall performance. Turn unengaged employees into engaged employees and the benefits will flow at little to no added expense.

Engaged workers stand apart from their not-engaged and actively disengaged counterparts because of the discretionary effort they consistently bring to their roles. These employees willingly go the extra mile, work with passion, and feel a profound connection to their company. They are the people who will drive innovation and move your business forward.

— Gallup

Human beings are motivated by competition and contests. While men tend to view gaming opportunities as individual missions, and woman more as team building opportunities, the underlying desire is the same. The species is programmed to enjoy winning. Visit a Las Vegas casino if you wish to validate this genetic generalization.

While hungry egos are more popularly associated with the male psyche, both men and women are motivated by being appreciated, respected, and applauded. For different types of accomplishments, or in different manners, but self-esteem is a universal craving. Every child likes a pat on the head or a gold star on their book report. The specifics of the rewards change as people age into adulthood, but the psychology remains the same.

Cake surprises in the office may rattle old-schoolers, but new-schoolers
understand it’s an effective forms of employee loyalty and engagement.

One British workplace researcher suggests that what employees are asking for when they react positively to gamification is simple appreciation from their employers. He suggests that employees feel starved of positive feedback from their bosses. The introduction of games and contests within the office forces a connection between management and staff and a necessary component of award and recognition.

You may see this often unspoken discontentment borne out in workplace practices such as pizza being delivered to the office the last Friday of every month. It’s not once-a-month free pizza that excites employees (though free pizza is never to be discounted), but the notion that somebody up there likes you. Which is why the reaction when such complimentary lunch programs are discontinued is fiercely negative. It’s not the five bucks a month in Domino’s pizza lost; it’s the sense that management cares less about you now.

Often it’s the little things that do make a big difference in employee behavior and engagement; it’s not always the Cadillac.

Gamification IS HERE; Get READY TO GAME

Gamification is a routine part of the millennial culture, baked into an endless number of app rewards programs, contests, and incentive packages. While grocery store stamp games and airline mile rewards programs have been around a long time, employees of a younger age have literally come of age expecting to “game” in multiple aspects of their personal, educational and work lives.

For people of another certain age, it’s worth considering this generational, cultural shift in the employee base of today and not judge “hokiness” or “silliness” by previous generations’ standards.

As a for instance, badges have risen in social esteem significance for the millennial-aged denizen. Badges are digitally certified awards or “diplomas” of recognition. More and more people are featuring badges in their social and work profiles to communicate their accomplishments.

Companies such as Credly provide third-party accreditation of these virtual badges, adding to their authenticity. Companies may award badges to staff who reach performance goals, win contests, or complete internal or external training classes and certifications. These are the modern day, adulthood version of Scout merit badges. Only these badges can go with you everywhere. They are becoming coveted forms of company rewards and recognition.

More and more people are displaying their badges on work and social profiles
to verify their skills and training and achievements

While any company function can be gamified. Health and Wellness programs are typically common entry points for companies testing the waters. Traditional employee wellness programs have proven ineffective across employee bases as healthcare and sick and absent employee costs have continued to rise.

Fitness programs are ideal for gamification with their natural connotation to actual games. Companies have employed contests for employees who bike to work (saving multiple sets of costs), drop weight, or compete in a company organized athletic team or contest. Often departments are pitted against one another or management versus employee or other natural dueling groups within companies.

Obviously, sales functions lend themselves to rewards contests, whether those rewards be badges or money. Scoreboards bring out the inner competitor, especially when those scoreboards are publicly available. That goes as much for closing sales accounts as for health and fitness accomplishments.

Sometimes work games are truly just that — games

Any work process can be gamified: claims processed, days without a workplace injury, on-time rates for employees in a department, tech repairs completed in a week. If you can score it, track it, and reward it, it can be gamified.

Some companies have taken gamification to the literal task. Such as an employee training company that has built their course material for day-long learning seminars into video games similar to Minecraft. This level of gamification has the potential to irk the less fanciful in management. But results are results, and these companies claim enhanced performance.

The cost of a disengaged employee base is high turnover, low productivity, and limited loyalty. This cost has to be weighed against apprehension to engage in new-age management thinking. The risks are present, but the potential rewards are high.

As with any hot management fad, gamification is certainly less than its hype, but it’s more than its critics admit. It’s worth examining your own company and your own situation to know how much and what kinds of gamification would best improve motivation, teamwork, and performance within your own walls. Starbucks cards are decidedly less expensive than Cadillacs.

Orchestra software specializes in providing contest and gamification software solutions for enterprise companies interested in fitness, health, and wellness games, or beyond to other forms of productivity improvement cited in this article. For more information, contact Brandon Meyers at Orchestra.