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The Pros And Cons Of A Gamified Work Culture

Making work into a game has its share of critics. So is this a practice worth keeping?

The Pros And Cons Of A Gamified Work Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Kevin Dinkel]

In the never-ending effort to motivate employees, companies are taking cues from video games–adding scoring, virtual badges, and other game-like elements to everyday work processes to make jobs more fun.

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Some proponents insist that one day every job will somehow be gamified, while detractors fear it’s just another management fad or worse, a sinister new form of corporate control.

To weed through some of the hype, here are four pros and cons to gamifying the enterprise.

The Good

1. Gamification Increases Employee Engagement

The most often cited reason companies try gamification is to improve employee motivation. Apparently, there are a lot of workers who need the extra boost. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 70% of U.S. workers reported themselves as not being engaged in their jobs.

Companies have found that gamification can help. LiveOps, a call center outsourcing firm, reported that adding game elements to reward employees reduced call times by 15% while increasing sales at least 8% and customer satisfaction 9%. The company also reduced training time from four weeks to only 14 hours when it added badges and rankings to motivate its workforce.

2. Gamification Offers Immediate Signs Of Achievement And Progress

In traditional workplaces, employees receive annual reviews that decide raises and promotions. Most of the time, however, they toil away unnoticed and unrewarded.

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In the gamified workplace, employees receive constant updates on their performance as they earn higher rankings and badges that get the attention of colleagues and supervisors. Companies like Spotify and LivingSocial have already replaced traditional reviews with mobile and gamified versions and have reported that 90% of employees are voluntarily participating in the programs.

3. Gamification Allows The Best And Brightest To Shine

A vital benefit of gamifying business is that it helps companies identify their future stars and leaders. Rather than just motivating the disengaged, gamification provides tools for motivated workers to contribute and be recognized.

Unlike in the past, when managers would call attention to their best employees, workers now identify each other. NTT Data and Deloitte use gamification to provide their employees with the chance to learn about leadership roles, develop management skills, and become better known within their organizations based upon their gameplay.

4. Gamification Is A New Type Of Credential

German enterprise software company SAP has used a point system to rank top contributors on its SAP Community Network (SCN) for a decade. Users of the social media site earn points when they contribute to forums and when their posts are liked. Rankings are visible on a global leaderboard, which is then used in employee performance reviews and when managers are searching for domain specialists when forming project teams.

Users have even begun including SCN ranking on resumes and employers are asking for them on job applications. What was intended as a purely internal metric to encourage community participation has become a valuable credential in the real world.

The Bad

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1. Gamification Is Often Ham-fisted

Many companies implementing enterprise gamification do so in the most generic ways. They slap point systems, badges, and leaderboards onto any work process they can think of rather than creating thoughtful experiences that balance competition and collaboration. They overlook the importance of creating meaning and fun in employees’ lives. For these reasons and others, Gartner predicts that 80% of efforts to gamify the workplace will fail.

2. Mandated Play Isn’t Really Play

Wall Street Journal technology reporter Farhad Manjoo questions any attempt to gamify work, musing that employees will rebel en masse when corporate managers try to make otherwise mundane jobs “fun.”

Furthermore, gaming evangelist and Reality Is Broken author Jane McGonigal, who has distanced herself from gamification, insists that games by their nature must be voluntary. When a company insists its employees play along, it stops being a game and is a form of coercion.

3. Gamification Is An Invitation To Cheat And Stab Coworkers In The Back

For as long as people have played games, they’ve cheated at them, too. When people’s jobs, promotions, and raises are based on a game, the temptation to cheat or take advantage of loopholes in the system can be hard to resist. Even worse, efforts to increase internal competition could provoke employees to actively sabotage each other or make unethical choices rather than work together for the good of the company as they attempt to hit specific goals. A quick search of SAP’s Community Network reveals many allegations by users of others cheating to increase their site rankings.

4. The Novelty Wears Off

At some point, most games get tiresome. Remember FarmVille? A challenge for enterprise gamification designers will be engineering variety and novelty into the experience to keep it novel. Workers may tire of badges, leaderboards, and challenges designed to keep them motivated in jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t want to do. Gamification might offer short-term productivity gains rather than long-term benefits.

The problem that enterprise gamification is trying to solve is real: the profound disengagement of the U.S. workforce. Yet it’s no cure-all. Even as some companies have seen positive results, deployments must first and foremost provide useful benefits to employees.

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Simply adding game-like elements to every job, while neglecting the long-term welfare of the people using the software, is clearly unsustainable. However, when the common pitfalls are considered and game mechanics are carefully implemented, gamification can add fun, meaning, and motivation to the workplace.

Nir Eyal runs NirAndFar.com, a blog about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He also authored the forthcoming book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

Stuart Luman is a science, technology, and business writer who has worked at Wired Magazine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and IBM.

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