Who wants to be a loser? No one.

The success of gamification as a mechanism for companies to engage with their customers has led many businesses to consider how similar techniques could be applied inside the organization. The application of game dynamics within a business can be very valuable to motivate employees and drive positive behaviour towards business objectives.

But the design of such initiatives, and the language used to describe them needs to be handled with caution, as badly designed "games" may result in the exact opposite of the intended goal, and even run into problems with employment law in some countries. 

Causes for Concern

The very term "gamification" will immediately alienate some employees. Leaving aside the sheer ugliness of the word itself, it indicates that the resulting initiative is just a game. To many employees, this gives the impression of it being optional -- "I don't come to work to play games" and "if it's a game, it can't be that important" are common responses. While many employees will see such workplace games as fun, other will see them as a frivolous waste of time.

There is also a potential contradiction in the objectives of such a game. Employee engagement strategies typically aim to get employees working together as a team, whereas most games set people against each other. Even team games engender an "us against them" spirit.

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Games have winners and losers -- while the winners may derive increased motivation from the game, consider what the impact on the losers will be. And there can often be resentment towards employees who are perceived as "gaming the system," or spending too much time playing the game rather than concentrating on their real job.

To the more suspicious, conspiracy-theory seeking employee, gamification programs are "performance monitoring by stealth," used by management to spy on what employees are doing. This becomes particularly sensitive when the result of the game is tied to financial reward. In a multi-national company, there are even potential conflicts with local employment laws in the way that data is gathered from the game and is shared between different parts of the company.

The impact of each of these issues varies around the world. It is generally believed that the principles of gamification are more acceptable to US workplaces, but far less well-received in some European countries such as France and Italy.

Finding the Balance

Let us consider three common examples of enterprise gamification in the context of these concerns:

  1. Self-guided learning of new products and services, with rewards for completing tasks or "missions." This is relatively uncontroversial, as the employee is really only competing against themselves; it is just a more engaging way of presenting a task that the employee would have been expected to perform anyway.
  2. Earning rewards for answering questions from co-workers on discussion forums. While the knowledge-sharing objectives are clearly worthwhile, there is plenty of potential for dispute. How much time are employees expected to spend answering questions? Such a scheme is likely to favour employees who have more spare time (causing resentment from others who feel that have less time because they are working harder), or who neglect their real job to earn more rewards. It also has the potential to form self-serving "I'll vote for you if you vote for me" cliques and cartels.
  3. Team-based innovation projects, where groups of employees work together to deliver new business ideas. Working in teams does discourage some of the "me first" mentality of gamification, but it potentially encourages secrecy, with teams hiding information from each other to improve their chances of winning.

Here are 5 suggestions for balancing these concerns with the potential benefits of gamification.

  1. Be clear from the outset whether the initiative is a compulsory part of employees' jobs, or an optional extra.
  2. If it's optional, don't penalize those employees who choose to opt-out, and ensure that those who opt in don't do so at the expense of their real job. Clearly indicate how much time employees are expected to spend on the initiative, and this should be balanced with their other tasks.
  3. If it's compulsory, don't call it a game -- make it clear that it's part of the job.
  4. Be open and transparent with employees about how any data collected will be used.
  5. Offer rewards that are proportionate to the initiative. Insignificant rewards are likely to result in employee apathy, whereas disproportionately large rewards may drive too much tension between employees.

Well designed and well thought out gamification schemes can be greatly beneficial to employee motivation. But to succeed, they need to consider the reception they will receive from employees, and the type of behavior they are likely to drive.

Image courtesy of Isma Riza (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in another take on gamification? Read Chris Bucholtz's Conversion of a Gamification Skeptic: CRM Adoption and a Clean House