by Sarah K. White

How to use gamification to improve employee engagement

Nov 23, 2016
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

The sophomore slump doesn't just happen to college students and professional athletes. It happens in the workplace, too. Once the high of a new job wears off, many workers are left feeling disengaged. But the key to ongoing engagement may lie in gamification.

Engagement isn’t something you only need to worry about during an employee’s onboarding process, says Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a professional staffing and recruiting firm. Instead, he says that engagement is a metric you need to track and measure throughout an employee’s career.

He says that during an employee’s first year with a company, they’re typically performing at their highest levels — they’re excited about the opportunity and constantly learning new things. It’s the “sophomore slump” stage that employers need to worry about the most. After an employee has been with the company for a year or two, “it’s lost its glamour and that excitement fades,” he says.

“There’s recruiting, and then there’s re-recruiting, which is constantly showing your staff that you’re investing in them, that you care about them and that you want them to grow. Engagement is a real-time metric. Good managers should always have a pulse on their employees’ engagement no matter how long they have been with the company,” he says.

Businesses know engaged workers are more productive, but data on engagement suggest they haven’t quite figured out how to tackle this issue. Gallup reports that national engagement levels hover around 30 percent — leaving 70 percent of the country disengaged at work. The answer might lie in a growing trend of gamification, which is quickly finding its way into the workplace.

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Gamification has already caught on with consumers; wearables, like those from FitBit, turn fitness into a game where you collect badges and earn rewards for your activity and health. You can even compete in challenges with friends to see who can get the most steps and FitBit includes rewards that you can work towards the longer you have your tracker. And you’ll find no shortage of gamified productivity apps, like Task Hammer, that help you turn your boring, mundane to-do list into an interactive game. You can set long term “epic quests” and “daily routines” to collect avatars, boost skills, earn points and gather badges as you check off items on the list.

The concept of gamification operates under the same science as video games, which are specifically designed to activate human reward centers. A longitudinal study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience suggests that video games can even “lead to improvement in cognitive performance,” even indicating that the rewards learned in gaming can stay with players long after they log off. Developers of gamified apps are taking that same concept to help people get motivated to accomplish things they aren’t as eager to get done, be it fitness, chores or work.

And they might be right — research supports this idea that gamification is effective in work environments; a study published in the Interaction Design and Architecture Journal by Hense, Mandl and Klevers, looked at the link between gamification and developing career skills. Researchers not only found that gamification increased motivation, which made it easier for people to retain knowledge, they also found that “gamification can be implemented in existing technical infrastructures without changing the basic workflow itself.”

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The science of motivation

The study from Hense, Mandl and Klevers breaks down motivation into different categories; some workers are motivated by achievement, others by power, some by a feeling of affiliation with a group or a sense of competence. The list is extensive, but it shows that motivation isn’t a one size fit’s all proposition — and most workers will fit multiple categories. That means any gamified productivity app needs to have a feature that will appeal to each type of personality.

For example, the study says that badges can motivate those with a “power motive,” or they can even give those with an “affiliation motive” the sense of community they enjoy. Leaderboards can inspire your competitive workers, while also fostering a sense of “social relatedness” between team members. Some have weekly or daily challenges, bringing friendly competition to what might otherwise be another boring day in the office.

Including quests in gamification can also teach employees “directly linked rewards,” the study suggests, which can also help provide straightforward goals and rewards to work towards. Creating “meaningful stories” in the app can also help engage employees and give them more context about what they’re learning, resulting in more “feelings of autonomy.”

Betting on yourself

Gal Rimon, founder and CEO at GamEffective, a company that designs gamification apps for businesses, offers one example where employees can place bets about how their day is going to go — based off what they expect or hope to accomplish. Someone in sales might set a prediction of how much revenue they’ll bring in, or set a goal for how many new clients they’ll bring in that day. Departments can pick specific KPIs to measure, so developers might measure progress goals on projects, or IT might bet on how many cases they can resolve that day. Of course, there are no shortage of gamified apps for businesses that offer a different experience — betting on your productivity is just one example of how to gamify the workday.

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Working in real-time

These apps measure real-time performance and engagement, while giving employees a way to accurately measure themselves against their coworkers to see how they’re performing. A worker won’t need to wait for their performance review or a one-on-one to find out they’re falling behind other workers, they can see it for themselves right in the app, and hopefully address it before management needs to get involved.

Gimbel says it’s important for managers to catch engagement issues early, before they grow into bigger problems and potentially infect the entire department. He says open communication and an open environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their struggles or disengagement are key to engagement.

“Oftentimes, [employees know] when they’re in a rut. They may not want to acknowledge it, or address it, but typically employees recognize it,” says Gimbel. The “game” side of gamification gets employees motivated, but the analytics side of gamification gives employees and managers deeper insights into productivity.

Seeing unbiased data about your own productivity might be enough to turn a disengaged worker into an engaged worker before management needs to address it. For managers, the analytic reports can also help identify weak spots in the department, deliver unbiased performance reviews and even identify disengaged workers before the problem snowballs.

“Great managers know when to motivate someone to push harder and when to ease off, but the key is warning the employee this can happen and providing guidance and support and a network of resources to help them,” he says.

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