Why gamification is a great tool for employee engagement

The rewards a gamer gets for completing levels or collecting points can be replicated in a workplace environment to improve engagement, motivate personal growth, and encourage continuous improvement.

Gaming is not only about getting to the boss level or filling out the entire map in a digital sandbox — it's also about how games can enhance or augment the way we live and engage with others. Those of us interested in game design want to know why and how people game and — perhaps even more so — if the psychology of gaming can be applied to our workforce and customer engagement goals. 

Gamification — defined by Gartner as "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals" — has been a part of business optimization strategies and brand awareness for decades. Games are part of the human psyche, dovetailing with the need for competition and the human emotions that are part of playing the game itself. 

Gaming is everywhere 

The key thing to remember is that there is an assumption that gaming relates purely to video games. But ask anyone who uses their Starbucks app to gain points toward a free coffee if they are "gaming," and you will get a blank look. Same goes for Nike's outstanding running app, which users assume is just a fitness tracker — whisper it quietly, but the company integrated game design to make it a competitive experience. Often, the mechanics of the game are hidden from view, but developers have integrated gamification principles across numerous initiatives over the years. 

Gamification is the beating heart of almost everything we touch in the digital world. With employees working remotely, this is the golden solution for employers. If applied in the right format, gaming can help create engagement in today's remote working environment, motivate personal growth, and encourage continuous improvement across an organization. 

Simple goals and motivations 

A few years ago, my company developed a game-focused engagement platform that translated recognition or acknowledgement from peers and customers into exchangeable currency called “InfoDollars.” When an employee did something deemed worthy of reward, they received a set number of redeemable tokens, which could be used to purchase company swag or, in some cases, be exchanged for actual money to donate to charities.  

This worked well for a while in terms of incentivization and increased engagement, but it became clear to me that the system only worked if it was treated as an actual game and not as a quid pro quo recognition process among employees. On the plus side, InfoDollars proved to be a valuable lesson in terms of what people will do to get a hit of dopamine.  

In the connected workspace, gamification is essentially a method of providing simple goals and motivations that rely on digital rather than in-person engagement. At the same time, there is a tacit understanding among both game designer and "player" that when these goals are aligned in a way that benefits the organization, the rewards often impact more than the bottom line. 

Engaged employees are a valuable part of defined business goals, and studies show that non-engagement impacts the bottom line. At the same time, motivated employees are more likely to want to make the customer experience as satisfying as possible, especially if there is internal recognition of a job well done. 

For example, a recent survey of Generation Z and Millennials found that 78% of respondents would be more loyal to their employer if "recognition rewards" were a part of the job. This is basic behavioral science, but recognition programs that build on the platforms of shared identity, social rewards and progress feedback are more likely to instill a culture of learning, recognition, and ambition.

In other words, the rewards that a gamer gets for completing levels in a game or by collecting enough points to move forward to the next stage can be replicated in a workplace environment. The caveat is that while gamification is a proven way of increasing employee engagement, simply introducing “games” into the workplace is not a slam dunk. Yes, rewards and badges are an incentive, but companies must know what the objectives are before they head down this path.

In my experience, this includes elements such as focusing on the results you want to achieve and maintaining transparency throughout. Gamification does not need to be overly complex, but employees should know why they are doing something and where they are going.

You must incorporate the socialization aspect – gamers are often part of a community – and reward the high performers. That means you need to know what the right rewards are and ensure that those who play the game are being motivated to win things that actually matter. My Infodollars experiment gravitated more towards priority car parking and ride share credits, for example.

On the flip side, there must be realistic expectations as to what the purpose of the game actually is and, importantly, the competitive aspect must not be the sole focus.

Granted, all games involve some level of competition between teams or individuals, but not every employee will be motivated to win at all costs. For that reason alone, the game must cater to both those who want to compete and those who just want to play.

Problem solving and creative thinking 

Gamers have a well-earned reputation as excellent problem solvers and creative thinkers, in part because the games they play require the successful completion of digital challenges to progress. However, the ways that companies can apply gamification trends into not only their own organizations but also their brand identity are numerous. 

While there is a consensus that gamification is just another buzzword, the simple truth is that gaming can provide positive end user experiences, engagement, and loyalty. This becomes even more significant when you consider that a remote and disparate workforce is likely to remain the norm for the foreseeable future.  

Gamification is nothing new, but it does have the potential to reach an untapped audience by providing them with a familiar experience. Game-playing is in our DNA, and the billions of dollars that the most successful digital games generate is proof that there is a place for this form of engagement as a business strategy. 

The quality of the workplace gaming experience will be the key component, but companies that want to increase or enhance employee engagement — and, by association, customer experience — should take note of the fact that most people are usually eager to play a game. The question is: Are the employers ready?

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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