Introducing gaming in the workplace can
increase engagement and retention—when done right.

By Mitchell Joseph

At last month’s HRO Today Forum in Philadelphia, a number of speakers introduced new and exciting ideas aimed at helping companies get the best out of their employees. Perhaps the most novel and intriguing of these concepts was a presentation on gamification in the workplace given by Professor Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Michael Beygelman, RPO president at Pontoon.

In the presentation, HR Gamification: Not Just Playing Games, Werbach, the author of For the Win: How Game Thinking
Can Revolutionize Your Business, began by listing some of the important features of games, including things such as points, levels, avatars, and progression. Gamification co-opts these components and repurposes them to situations and objectives that are not traditionally viewed as games. As Werbach put it, “What we can do in gamification, is take those kind of elements, the same elements that go into a game, and put them in something that’s not a game.” If utilized correctly, Werbach said that game thinking can help companies to motivate their employees and greatly increase productivity.

Werbach cited the example of Keas, a business service that has gamified health and wellness for employees, offering companies the opportunity to reduce healthcare costs “by putting people on teams, giving them points, getting them to compete, using missions and challenges, using quests and badges. Only now the point is not to play a game,” said Werbach. “The point is to get healthier and achieve that business objective for the companies.”

Another essential consideration in gamification is what Werbach called, “aligning the incentive.” He cited a Boston- area startup called Objective Logistics as an example of proper incentive alignment. The company has gamified the performance and scheduling of shifts for restaurant servers, giving these employees greater visibility of their performance relative to their peers, as well as offering
the restaurant increased knowledge of which servers are most effective. This system offers valuable feedback to
the servers, while also allowing the restaurant to make more informed decisions when scheduling shifts. The top performing servers can be rewarded with the most lucrative time slots. This initiative has succeeded “by couching the same kind of structure the Disney case did in a negative way in a positive way [see example below], by aligning the incentives,” said Werbach. “The restaurants want to generate more revenue, and so do the servers.” The numbers backup these claims of success, as restaurants using the program have reported two to four percent increases in revenue, not an insignificant amount in the restaurant business.

Job satisfaction among the servers also went up, a fact
that shows the power of “intrinsic rewards.” Werbach mentioned three main intrinsic rewards that motivate people: competence, autonomy, and relatedness, or a sense of being part of a group working toward a larger goal. Well-designed games can provide players all three of these rewards.

When Gaming Goes Wrong

However, not every attempt at gamification will be an automatic success. Werbach points out a number of potential pitfalls in what he calls “PBL” games, which employ points, badges, and leaderboards as their main game elements. The first risk is that employees will recognize the artificiality of the game and stop responding to the rewards presented by the game. “The other danger is that [the game] will be too effective,” he said, “People will get too focused on the rewards and they will lose sight of…the underlying goals and the underlying reason that they are engaged with the activity.” This possibility stems from psychology, which has found that overreliance on “extrinsic rewards,” or those that do not come internally from the game participant, can be counterproductive.

As Werbach said, “It causes people to think that the only reason to do the activity is for the reward, not because it’s something they actually want to do.”

Another hazard is that the activity becomes manipulative. Werbach mentioned a Disney gamification effort
that sought to track the speed and efficiency of its housekeeping staff and then display that information on a leaderboard. The results were disastrous. “People started freaking out,” Werbach said, “They said, ‘Oh my god, I guess I can’t take bathroom breaks anymore.’ They said, ‘Look I’m near the bottom, I’m getting fired.’” The program, which a 2011 Los Angeles Times article referred to as the ‘electronic whip,’ actually caused a decrease in productivity.

“There’s a danger of just blindly applying these game elements without thinking it through more systematically,” Werbach stated. Successful gamification efforts employ a “structured, iterative” game design process that includes testing on real people and then revising the game based on the subjects’ feedback. Successful gamification efforts will take into account the progression a player experiences. “A good game actually teaches you how to play the game by playing the game itself,” explained Werbach, “It pulls you along and stays interesting and challenging as you get more experience, up to the point of mastery.” He pointed out that there are two goals when designing a game: getting people to play and keeping them playing.

Gamification is not useful in every situation. Werbach noted four points that a company should consider before deciding to employ game thinking.

Impact of motivation. “It’s not always important to performance indicators that you care about in a business whether people are motivated.”

Autonomy. “Are there meaningful choices?” asked Werbach. “People need to feel like they have the opportunity to do something that then provides a result.”

Structured for execution. “Some things are inherently vague or more creative or abstract,” said Werbach. “Is [the situation in question] structured enough so that you can define what exactly are the behaviors?”

Alignment. “A gamified system can potentially enhance and piggyback on that, or it can be totally unrelated or in conflict even with the existing incentive structure. There needs to be thought into whether the gamification can be done in a way that doesn’t pull against the incentives that are already being created by the existing structures that are out there.” If a business situation passes these four tests, then it may be an appropriate target for gamification.

Bringing Gaming to RPO

As RPO President at Pontoon, Beygelman took the stage to provide a practitioner’s view on gamification. He exhibited some of the early efforts to implement gamification in the recruitment process. He began with a disclaimer. “Where gamification is in the context of recruitment is way before early adopter. It may be even before the pioneer phase. Right now a lot of it is just discussion.” He stressed that different recruitment channels, from internal mobility to headhunting, can be best served by different gamification systems. “The key is to apply a more relevant gaming model to [each different] type of a sourcing channel,” he said.

At Pontoon, Beygelman began to explore the applicability of gamification to recruiting at such an early stage that he joked, “We were solving a problem that didn’t exist.” That nascent exploration revealed a number of qualities that good games should have. According to Beygelman, games must be “interactive, immersive, competitive, engaging, social, and addicting.” He particularly emphasized addicting and agreed with Werbach that one of the keys to successful gamification is getting people to come back and keep playing.

Beygelman also focused on making gamification efforts easily accessible and convenient for their intended audience. “In the world of recruitment, the mobile device has become very important because it’s no longer a cell phone, it’s a lifestyle device,” he asserted. He cited studies that have found that people are more likely to go back home if they forget their cell phone than if they forget their wallet. “Think about gaming [in terms of] having the right device connected to the right approach,” he said.

The presentation continued with a demonstration of Pontoon’s own quiz-based recruitment game from his smartphone. Beygelman stressed the fact that his company does not reserve gamification efforts for clients; they actually employ the method themselves. However, he said the game is not the final objective for his company. “In the world of recruitment, the game itself is not the end-all be- all,” he stated. “You have to think about pushing traffic to a destination to then hopefully become a part of a community to gain interest in what you do.”

While discussing the different forms recruitment games can take, Beygelman said, “Candidates that are any good are tired of filling out 80,000 lines of profile and attaching their CVs, so to be more aligned with social media and how people are now engaging in the world of recruitment, you have to start offering different ways for people to log in.”

This ease of access and convenience was an ongoing theme of Beygelman’s presentation, and he contended that companies must mobilize the resources that social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn offer to eliminate some of the redundant data entry for candidates. “What’s really cool is the integration of this to social media,” he said, “because at the end of the day…just because you have a Facebook page for a company or just because you have a LinkedIn account, that’s not social media. That’s just advertising. It’s just a different kind of advertising. Social media is moving to a place where it has to be peer-to-peer. Here [in the Pontoon recruitment quiz] I can act on that and share it with all of my Twitter friends.” The connection of recruitment gamification efforts to existing networks is essential for creating a real interactive community that will actually enhance recruiting endeavors.

But recruitment gamification is not just a way to engage candidates; it also brings a variety of benefits for the recruiting company. “What we did as a recruitment firm… we’ve actually captured all of that information, one click at a time,” he said. When a candidate plays a recruitment game, they have shared a wealth of data and information, including profile and contact information, résumé, game results, and how they navigated to the game. Gamification can eliminate the busy work of data entry for both candidate and company.

Beygelman concluded his segment by asking the audience why companies should invest in gamification efforts for recruitment purposes. The answer is twofold. “This is
an entirely different way of engaging with candidates,”
he claimed. “It is not a way to replace other methods of engaging with candidates. It is a new way that, for the time being, others are not exploring.” That more varied and comprehensive engagement can be vital for companies as they make hiring decisions. Second, recruitment gamification can differentiate a company from its competitors, which may have an impact on candidates’ decisions. “Let’s say you work for a company that is not paying the highest rate in the market. You need ways to be able to still attract candidates and get them excited about your organization.” Beygelman asserted that gamification is one of the ways a company can set itself apart in the minds of candidates.

While these two speakers come from disparate backgrounds, both are strong proponents of the productive potential
of gamification. While these efforts may still be in their infancy, especially in the recruiting world, gamification will surely be a buzzword in the near future as more and more companies search for methods to keep their workforce motivated and engaged.

Tags: Employee Engagement, Learning & Development, Recognition & Rewards, RPO & Staffing, Talent Acquisition

Related Articles