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How gamification is used to motivate workers

A variety of UK, European and US companies are turning to gamification to motivate workers to complete and repeat business processes more efficiently, including by competing against each other

When Gartner’s Brian Burke wrote a book on gamification in 2014 – Gamify: how gamification motivates people to do extraordinary things – the analyst firm had placed the concept on its hype cycle graph as sliding down from inflated expectations to the trough of disillusionment. It had previously been used in scattershot fashion, says Burke, and “some things worked – a lot didn’t”.

Three years later, gamification – adding game-like elements into processes to motivate people to complete or repeat them – has narrowed in its focus. Burke, a vice-president and chief of research at Gartner, says it is now used mainly in training and education, encouraging innovation and to boost employee performance, with the last focused on jobs with clear goals, including sales and support.

Burke reckons organisations could now use gamification more broadly. “There are all sorts of potential applications, as long as people understand it’s got to target an area with a shared goal, or at least aligned ones,” he says.

Disneyland provided an example of how not to use gamification a few years ago, when it introduced digital leaderboards providing a performance-based list of laundry staff. Employees called it the electronic whip. “People in a laundry room are not individually motivated to wash more sheets,” says Burke.

David Glance, director of the University of Western Australia’s centre for software practice, believes that although gamification can help employees, there are more important things IT can do for them. “Nothing beats something that works really well, is a pleasure to use and clearly makes your job easier,” he says. “Gamification isn’t going to make up for a terrible job, a terrible bit of software or a terrible idea. It can potentially enhance things, but it can’t make people forget that what they’re doing isn’t particularly pleasant.”

There can also be issues with some of the main ways in which gamification is used, says Glance. Gamified training, which can involve giving people virtual badges for completing levels, is often added at the same time as other improvements, making it hard to tell how much the game element has contributed.

More seriously, as Disneyland’s laundry workers found, there can also be problems with making games competitive. “Leaderboards act as an incentive for some people, but disincentivise others,” says Glance. In a league-style list, those with no chance of catching the leaders may give up trying.

Vanarama league

But this has not been a problem for UK van-leasing broker Vanarama, according to Tom Roberts, a content editor for the company. Roberts works on Vanarama’s in-house display system, which shows a leaderboard of salespeople along with other performance measures and messages. The digital system, installed earlier this year, replaced similar lists on whiteboards, and people down the list can get extra support.

“Salespeople in general are quite competitive,” says Roberts. “They want to be at the top of the board, and hear a ‘kerching’.” He is referring to the sound the system generates when it records a sale.

The off-the-shelf system, provided by RMG, integrates data from Vanarama’s Avaya IP Office telephony system and its Evolution customer relationship management (CRM) software. It took about two months to configure in the company’s new Hemel Hempstead office, although it was partly brought into use during this period.

The system shows a “hall of fame” featuring the top salespeople for the week, month and year, but it can also be configured with time-limited games. Last summer, Vanarama set targets for its sales team which, when met, allowed everyone in its new head office to stop working. “Everyone was feeling much more motivated, as they’d get to go home early and enjoy the sun,” says Roberts.

The system has also reduced internal email use, as performance data is visible to both the sales and administration teams automatically. The company is increasingly using it for internal communications and to make salespeople aware of current special deals.

Waxing digital

Wax Digital, a cloud-based e-procurement provider based in Manchester, has used gamification in a more limited way with its 30-strong IT development team. All have a responsibility to deal with support queries, and the company gets a glut of these in March and April around the end of the tax year and in August and September when people return from holidays. Rather than take on temporary staff, Wax uses a game to encourage the developers to answer tickets out of hours, as well as paying them overtime to do so.

Each ticket is scored out of 10 based on its difficulty – decided by support desk staff who are not taking part in the game – and how long they take to answer, using data from the company’s Taskforce and Grindstone software. Chief technology officer Pete Kinder monitors the system for anyone trying to cheat, such as by taking an unexpectedly long time to deal with a query.

He says he has not seen this happen so far, although this is one reason for running such games only over a couple of weeks. Also, the fixes proposed by developers are now checked before results are declared – the first time the game ran, some failed testing.

Each competition is administered with an Excel spreadsheet and the top three or four developers win prizes – often hardware the company has bought for testing and no longer needs. A pair of Google Glasses was the first top prize.

“The reason it works is our guys are very competitive – egotistical is a polite word,” says Kinder. “People want to show off that they can fix 25 tickets in a week.” But stopping a backlog of tickets building up out of hours also helps everyone, he adds. “The big things are the prize and the competition, but it also means there is less pressure during the working day.”

Novartis games for learning

Some companies have adopted gamification across a number of areas, and Switzerland-based pharmaceutical group Novartis uses it for learning, engaging with staff and innovation. “We made a mobile device game to engage our people in our values and behaviours, we have developed games to reinforce and scale up learning, and we have used gaming for developing product knowledge across our salesforce globally,” says Simon Brown, global head for the group’s learning centre of expertise and Novartis universities.

He points out that many people are familiar with the idea from other areas, such as fitness apps or frequent flyer schemes.

“Think of it in terms of a golf game, rather than Angry Birds. Gamified platforms should be designed with sustainability in mind, build to last over a long period”
Madu Ratnayake, Virtusa

Novartis uses gamification techniques including leaderboards, “scaffolded” learning – where tasks get progressively more difficult – and game-style graphics and storytelling. One example, now in its third year, is its business partnering global blended learning project, run with UK consultant Ludic’s SmartLearning platform. This provides distance learning to staff around the world, with 600 employees working together on a real challenge over six months.

“Our learning approach allows participants to customise their learning journey and experience in an engaging and practical way, through self-learning, virtual classrooms, one-to-one coaching and community engagement,” says Brown. “The elements it includes would have been impossible on a standard intranet.”

Brown says gamification within the group’s partnering programme, which helps to train participants, increased customer satisfaction with those partners by 12% in the first year of implementation. “Games should be focused on solving specific business challenges and give people skills or knowledge that are important for the strategic aims of the organisation,” he says. “The social element of gaming – the way in which people share experiences, build bonds and compete through games – can reinforce new behaviours and help take teams to the next level.”

Virtusa gaming for millennials

Virtusa, a US-based IT consulting and outsourcing group with 18,000 employees around the world, uses gamification in a similarly wide way through its V+ system, which trains staff on the company’s structure and culture.

The company built V+ in-house – based on Microsoft SharePoint – over a six-year period. It draws on the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP), CRM and project management software suites.

One element of gamification is a points system called Reps. “Reps is used across the board, helping us to quantify the contributions and achievements of our staff,” says Virtusa’s chief information officer, Madu Ratnayake. It covers all activities, including coding and hiring.

One early lesson was to widen the design process and develop the V+ platform in a transparent way, says Ratnayake. “That way, the platform evolves with the user at the centre,” he says, adding that gamification should not be seen as a short-term measure.

“Think of it in terms of a golf game, rather than Angry Birds,” he says. “In other words, gamified platforms should be designed with sustainability in mind, build to last over a long period.”

The company decided to use game-based techniques because more than 70% of its workforce are millennials (born since 1980), although it has found that many aspects work with older employees too. “Game-based techniques have a significant engagement advantage for this demographic – we have seen a 10-15% increase in most of the areas we’ve gamified, such as collaboration and staff morale,” says Ratnayake. “To complement the gamified aspect of V+, we also included crowdsourcing, social engagement and data-driven onboarding technologies into the platform.”

Read more about gamification

Gartner’s Burke believes the technique can work for all ages. “Gamification is not like a video game,” he says. “There is no storyline, animation or avatars in most gamification. Often the interaction is fairly dry.”

And it has a different purpose – to motivate rather than to entertain. Burke says one consulting firm that used a gamified system to educate staff on corporate values found older employees made more use of it than younger ones, because they were more likely to understand the need to learn values.

Burke thinks gamification may develop further by being built into collaboration software suites, such as Jive, which need to encourage employees to use them. “You need to get enough people up to speed using these suites before they are valuable – it’s a network effect,” he says.

The University of Western Australia’s Glance says gamification can also develop independently of technology departments, through employees playing games with software intended for other purposes. He writes for The Conversation, a site that publishes articles by academics, including on gamification. Like many publishers, it provides its writers with a statistical dashboard of data, including page views.

As someone who writes a lot for the site, Glance uses the dashboard to play games. “The overall number [of page views] keeps going up, and for me, that becomes a motivation to write,” he says. “But it doesn’t work for most of the people who write for The Conversation, as they only write once or twice.”

Such self-imposed games can have perverse results, in this case encouraging academics to write click-bait. Along with many journalists, Glance has realised that any mention of sex means lots more clicks. “Writing about Kaspersky, anti-virus and Russian spies, not so much,” he adds. 

So although gamification can motivate staff, the trick for an organisation is to make sure it motivates them to do things the company wants them to do.

This was last published in November 2017

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