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A Simple, Science-Backed Way To Solve The Employee-Engagement Problem

Gamification guru and Bunchball founder Rajat Paharia has a data-backed approach to sparking even the least motivated staffer.

"Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook know more about employees" than their managers do.

That’s Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball and a father of the gamification industry. Paharia’s still surprised that, while consumer giants can effectively capture streams of user data to make shopping and entertainment more compelling, C-suite executives and managers have yet to tap the power of their internal systems to keep staff whistling—or at least nodding along to Spotify playlists—while they work.

"We’re spending 8, 10, 12 hours a day in our employee systems—training, collaboration, sales, service—all that data right now is going off into the ether," Paharia laments. "The big question is: Can you take that big data that employees are generating as they interact with various systems and use that to create more engaging and compelling experiences for them. Because if you can, it’s the best opportunity to drive better performance, a competitive advantage in your business and to motivate your employees to do better."

Now that so many workplaces large and small use software tools for collaboration, sales and marketing, not to mention internal communication, there’s a huge opportunity to kick inspiration and innovation into high gear, Paharia tells Fast Company.

There are about 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, but only 30% of them say they’re engaged and inspired. The other 70% fall into two groups: those who just show up, do their work, and go home (50%) and those who are actively miserable and seeding discontent (20%), according to Gallup.

In rote jobs, this number is even higher. Take the call center. In what’s been described as an electronic sweatshop, representatives often sit elbow to elbow, fielding inbound calls from customers who range from cordial to clueless to irate—all for a paycheck that hovers close to minimum wage. Is it any wonder call centers lose staff at a rapid clip? Turnover ranges between an average of 43% to about 70% for centers with more than 1,000 agents.

Paharia knew that if there were a way to get call center agents to go from "take this job and shove it" to "take this job and love it," he could hold the key to boosting employee engagement regardless of the job. The trickle-down benefits of a happy workforce? Lower costs associated with lost productivity and less time and fewer resources spent to find and train new talent, not to mention the added bonus that inspired staff bring to customer interactions.

Drawing on his background in engineering, product design, and gamification, Paharia has come up with a data-driven, people-centric approach to dealing with the motivation shortfall.

Here’s the amazing thing about human motivation: If you can tap into it properly, there’s a never-ending supply of it. It’s like cold fusion for loyalty. And whoever figures out how to harness that energy is going to win.

Paharia and company have spent the last six years diving deep into the science behind data-driven motivation. It’s the basis for Paharia’s book Loyalty 3.0, and it’s also the foundation Bunchball Labs was built on. Careful readers will remember the analytics offering in the 5.0 release of Bunchball’s Nitro Studio was a direct result of data points studied in the Lab.

Here’s a breakdown of what sparks motivation inside anyone’s mind:

Managers don’t need to crawl inside their employees’ grey matter to spark engagement. Outside influences do have their place says Paharia, but you don’t have to resort to bribing people with dollars or stuff. The days of rewarding performance with a trip to Hawaii or a set of steak knives are over, Paharia says, although a part of it is still relevant.

"It was not the [prize]; it was what it symbolized—that you got first place and everyone knew it," he explains. Now those rewards might look like anything from early entry to a daily deal site to winning a gift card and being offered the choice to donate it to a friend. "It’s about a relationship that transcends transactional," says Paharia.
Citing the work of Daniel Pink, Paharia explains there are two types of extrinsic motivators:

  • Algorithmic: where the employee is doing a rote task like making a sandwich or assembling a product in a prescribed way.
  • Heuristic: where employees need to draw from their own creativity and experience to achieve a goal.

The problem that arises with staff at script-driven places like a call center is that there is very little of the more valuable intrinsic motivation happening. This would be magnified at a place where the staff numbers more than 20,000—especially if they all work from home.

This was the scenario at LiveOps, a cloud-based call center for such mega-firms as Symantec and AAA. But LiveOps didn’t just want to motivate their independent agents to get out of their PJs and pick up the phone and bid for work, they wanted them to also be brand ambassadors.

Enter gamification. Gamification motivates people with data on goals met, transparency about everyone's progress and collaboration, instant feedback, while giving employees a sense of community. At LiveOps, it looked like this:

  • Agents could get badges and points if they completed additional training and certifications (this takes care of the autonomy, mastery, and progress motivators).
  • They received reward points for increased call conversion, and all points were tracked on public leader boards. (ditto)
  • Sharing knowledge, coaching, and networking were also rewarded with badges and real-time feedback (social interaction and contributing to a greater good).

Paharia reports that within a week of launching the program, 80% of LiveOps agents opted in and three-quarters of them return on a bi-weekly basis. Participating agents outperformed peers by 23% in average call-handle time and boosted customer satisfaction by 9%.

From there, the gamification approach tackled multiple motivational pressure points, including another soul crusher: the sales meeting. The folks at Box used gamification mechanics for everything from boosting on-site learning to the ever-dreaded networking.

For Paharia, anything is possible through gamification. "You just have to choose the things you want to reward for: competition or collaboration."

Or both. As long as the data’s on your side.

[Image: Flickr user Matt Preston]

Add New Comment


  • Oscar Giraldo

    If you’re thinking of applying Gamification to improve your Call Center performance, you should be aware that gamification is just a small step in the long journey to make your agents more productive and engaged within your company. I’d like to share what I’ve learned about Gamification from building PlayVox.

    8 Things You Need to Know Before You Gamify your Call Center

  • Shep Hyken

    I don’t know how many company leaders would enjoy having their business strategies compared to those of Walter White, the science teacher turned drug lord in Breaking Bad, but none the less, this is a very entertaining read. 

  • David @P2PEngagement

    There are some ethical questions as big or bigger than big data itself! Especially as gamification moves from classical game mechanics to what I call engagement-behaviorization: the application of applied behavior analysis and behaviorized big data to shape and accelerate human behavior in the workplace. 

    Should employees understand and consent to such arguably clinical interventions? Where does behavior based performance management become behavior modification subject to the ethics of that very powerful human science? Is it ethical to cause employees to become addicted to their work?

    Thought provoking article! 

    David @P2PEngagement:twitter

  • UrbanMoto

    "you don’t have to resort to bribing people with dollars or stuff"

    Bribing people with dollars?

    Yeah, because actually paying people for the crappy job they have to do is so last century.

  • Deliciab

    Lydia not sure if you will read this comment but one of things i have noticed and experienced is most of the time people who work in call centers have some of the most stressful jobs are under a tense amount of pressure to meet call goals but get paid terrible salaries and are treated like garbage. They are often times managed or overseen by some schmuck who has never even worked in a call center but knew someone in the company and was given the job (NOT ALL BUT SOME) so let me be clear about that but i often feel bad for people who have to work that job I know cause i was one of them.