The benefits of gamification in business

12 min reed | Jacky Carter | Article | Leadership Workforce Management

Man sitting in front of window reading from tablet

Through the use of game mechanics, gamification can tap into our innate sense of competition and desire to improve. And while many of us have adopted it in our personal lives, businesses often still struggle to use it effectively. But what benefits can gamification bring to an organisation, and how can companies engage their staff with it?


What is gamification?

Although the label gamification was coined in 2002, almost 20 years later many people still struggle to explain what it is. Research company Gartner defines the phenomenon as “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve goals”.

Gamification can include tracking of progress, and its impact has certainly been felt in our lives outside the workplace. The ‘Quantified Self’ is the cultural phenomenon of self-tracking through the use of technology. This may be by keeping count of the calories you consume or even by measuring the amount of sleep you have had. And while the term has been around since the 1970s, the rise of smartphones, GPS watches and fitness monitors in recent years has seen the number of people that track themselves skyrocket.


Why has gamification failed to revolutionise the workplace?

The theory has arguably been around long enough. Its ability to promote certain behaviours in the workplace was also first proposed in 2002.

By 2011, Gartner was so confident in its potential that a report from the organisation predicted that by 2015, half of businesses would have gamified part of their processes. Yet a Penna study from 2015 found that 70 per cent of HR Directors said that it was not used in their workplace at all. By 2018, TalentLMS data still revealed that around half of employees had yet to experience gamification in the workplace.

While its value as an industry is still growing each year, it seems that some organisations are still struggling to implement gamification technology in the first place or engage employees once they have. Early difficulties revolved around a lack of real clarity as to what gamification is and how it can help an organisation. This fed into poor initial results that have dampened enthusiasm among early adopters. There was also a belief that a one-size-fits-all approach could be used, regardless of the circumstances, the demographics of the teams involved or the processes being gamified. For the persistent, these early forays provided valuable lessons that rendered future projects more successful.


Why does gamification work?

Gamification works because it gives people control over what they’re doing, and also provides them with clear markers as to their progress to date, a map to guide them in future actions and prizes to clearly indicate when they’ve undertaken the right behaviours. Toss in the competitive element that most gamification programs employ and it’s easy to see why it is touted as an effective engagement tool.

“Gameful design works through triggering factors of intrinsic motivation, such as our drives for social interaction, meaningful contributions, achievements, increasing challenges and self-challenges to demonstrate our competence, and giving us the ability to autonomously self-express,” Dr Lennart Nacke, Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute in Canada, says. “Designing for successful gamification means to engage people meaningfully with interactions that would otherwise be considered bland.”

Arguably the most common form of gamification to date has been in learning and development, with 2019 research from Harvard Business School highlighting the potency of gamification on our ability to learn at work. The study found that applying gamification during the learning process had a strong impact on the willingness of employees to not only engage with learning, but to complete the programmes more consistently.


Putting gamification into practice

One company that can relate to the findings is Deloitte, which utilised gamification in its Deloitte Leadership Academy training programme. It found that after integrating gamification into the Academy, there was a 37 per cent increase in the number of employees returning to the digital platform every week.

Deloitte aimed to stand out from previous implementations of gamification by making it very personal to each employee. For instance, the leaderboard is customised to each person, and only shows those nearest to them in the overall organisational standings. They also provide users with extensive onboarding to ensure that they are familiar with the mechanics of both the learning management system and the game elements behind it.

The aim of this personalisation is to help each employee take ownership of their own training and development. They can then tailor the courseware provided through the platform in a way that best suits their needs and work patterns.


How gamification can make learning fun

Similar results have been achieved by home, car and life insurance company Farmers Insurance, which has been working with VR company Talespin to provide AI-driven training to employees across 500 different scenarios in the home insurance space. The training application is gamified to add an element of fun and competition to the process. Farmers Insurance says that the tool has helped to accelerate learning, build confidence among the workforce and reduce the time and cost associated with training programmes.

Global software company Red Hat has also been using gamification and ‘serious game’ techniques as part of an immersive experience in its Open Innovation Labs. The company has used a serious game (a game designed for a primary purpose such as training, problem-solving or skills-practising) that allows people to collaboratively build a Lego city, using the same methods and practices it wants employees to use with customers.

The aim was to make learning more fun, and there have been immediate results, with the programme having one of the highest Net Promoter Scores the company has ever seen. Red Hat now wants to use gamification in other learning settings too.


Making employees healthier using gamification

Gamification can also be deployed to boost employee physical wellbeing. The importance of physical activity in the workplace was illustrated by a recent Australian study from Curtin University, which found that employees who walked during their lunch break were less stressed than their more sedentary peers.

Projects such as Step Ahead: Zombies aim to use gamification to encourage activity among the workforce. The project includes a walking challenge, with participants having to escape a virtual zombie invasion courtesy of the steps they undertake in the real world. Employees are placed into teams, who are encouraged to get to a safe house as fast as possible, with the team element designed to encourage employees to support and help their colleagues be more active. Those who fail to walk enough are caught by the zombies and henceforth become part of the zombie team. The game has already seen considerable success, with the developers reporting that 20 per cent improvements in employee engagement were common among participating organisations.

Lee County Schools district in Florida deployed the program for their workforce over a one-month period, and saw an 87 per cent participation rate, and health risk reduction savings of more than $132,000. What was most pleasing, however, is that the healthy behaviour changes stuck among employees.

“We had people on our teams meeting before work to walk for an hour, and they’re still currently doing that months and months after the challenge is over. People still walk in the halls, but they’re also still doing those things that they weren’t doing beforehand,” reports Heather Parker, Employee Wellness Coordinator at Lee County Schools district.


The benefit of prizes

Perhaps the largest case study of gamifying wellbeing comes from the research undertaken by RAND Europe on behalf of health insurer Vitality, which worked with the Apple Watch and behavioural scientists such as Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler to create a gamified process to encourage activity among insurance customers.

In total, around 400,000 Vitality consumers were equipped with the Apple Watch, and a range of incentives was provided to encourage activity, the ultimate one being the offer of keeping the device if they maintained a certain level of activity for two years.

The data found that there was a 34 per cent increase in activity levels from across the research group, with the increase common across demographic profiles and previous activity levels. It’s an outcome that the team believes exemplifies the improvements that are possible.

It can also be used to improve engagement, whether it’s retailer Target, which made the checkout process more like a game, or the pharmacy software company Omnicare, which gamified the customer service process, with leaderboards awarding the best performers cash prizes.


Why gamification fails

Alas, gamification is no guarantee of success. A study from Washington University highlights how some employees can try to manipulate these kinds of schemes, while Wharton research showed that trying to force fun at work often has the opposite effect than the one intended. These risks help to contribute to the 80 per cent or so of gamification projects that Gartner believes fail to deliver on set objectives.

“Gamification has raced up the HR agenda in recent years as employers look to find creative and innovative ways to recruit, train and engage employees, as well as allow teams to learn about themselves and others,” John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company says. “But gamified approaches aren’t a magic bullet and are often most effective when they are used together with more traditional methods.”

This approach should involve the parking of any presumptions you may have, as there is no one demographic that is particularly in tune with gamification. Indeed, research from TalentLMS suggested that 90 per cent of workers aged 45+ felt they were likely to be more productive if work was more game-like, compared with 73 per cent of 18–24-year-olds and 87 per cent of 25–44-year-olds.


Cultural challenges of gamification

It can also be challenging to implement gamification across cultures, especially in multinational organisations with teams spread across the globe.

“It has often been tricky to get everyone in a group to ‘play a game’; this can be due to cultural reasons (we work across the world and many different cultures), and sometimes down to personality,” Jeremy Brown, Director, Red Hat Open Innovation Labs – EMEA says.

Brown adds that making gamification more collaborative and less formal has made its introduction easier. “We have found that working in teams can help us overcome most of the resistance to trying a new approach.”

Gamification taps into many of the innate motivations that drive us to perform, and as such its promise remains rich across the working world. Implementing a gamified approach is not without risks, however, and these underpin the poor return seen in many gamification initiatives implemented to date. Organisations must offer a balanced approach that engages more of their workforce if they want to get the most from gamification.


About this author

Jacky Carter, Customer Experience Director

With more than 30 years of experience in the staffing industry, Jacky’s expertise spans many aspects of Hays’ business including operations, marketing, RPO and technology.  In her current role, Customer Experience Director, Hays, Jacky spearheads a number of strategically significant partnerships for Hays including LinkedIn, Xing, Google, GO1, Mya and StackOverflow. Her unique and invaluable remit is to make sense of emerging trends and technology in the HR and broader world, identifying, evaluating and implementing the tools that enable Hays to power the future world of work. Jacky is a well-respected and generous thought leader within the industry, regularly authoring articles and sharing her knowledge and expertise through multiple channels.

articleId- 49097629, groupId- 20151