A new high score in efficiency

Microsoft, Target see gains through employee gaming

Many North American companies are in a growth and efficiency funk. Simply having a good product is no longer a guarantee of success. You need to better engage your workforce to drive higher productivity, creativity and more comfort around change.

The only differentiator left for many sectors such as banking, health care, services and retail is a more engaged workforce and a stronger culture. But a decade of downsizing, technological change and economic uncertainty has spawned a cynical, aloof and exhausted workforce. Most firms engage only 30 per cent to 40 per cent of employees at any given time.

Unfortunately, using traditional methods to spur on employees will likely disappoint. Many change management, employee engagement and extrinsic reward strategies fail to trigger long-term change and improved business results. But executives should not give up hope — newly emerging gamification strategies can help.

What is gamification?

Gamification is the use of gaming principles and techniques in a business environment to drive attitudinal and behavioural change over the long term.

Many companies such as Microsoft, SAP, Deloitte and Nike are already using these innovative strategies to improve operational performance, spark innovation, foster higher levels of collaboration and catalyze long-term behavioural change. Some gamification platforms can produce a rich and steady stream of data that can be used to pinpoint employee engagement trends faster and with more accuracy.

Fundamentally, gamification leverages the power and appeal of games to turn disengaged individuals into active and productive participants. Games rely on intrinsic drivers such as fun, mastery, pride and recognition to increase engagement, instead of extrinsic, binary rewards and punishment.

Playing games enables a person to experience a brand or change behaviourally, rather than simply hearing one-off messages in a passive way. Consistently living this experience — both in an online and offline environment — can indelibly imprint a memory of the desired change on the individual.

A wide variety of tasks at medium to large organizations that can be “gamified” include boring, repetitive operations such as quality assurance, participation in training programs, compliance with corporate procedures, involvement in wellness or green programs, and knowledge-sharing.

Playing games is a natural human activity that traces its roots back to prehistoric times. Hundreds of millions of people of all ages regularly play online and offline games around the world including 42 per cent of Americans, 52 per cent of United Kingdom residents and 66 per cent of Germans, according to the 2011 National Gamers Survey by Newzoo. Many of the principles behind gamification come from the 40-year-old, $70-billion video game industry, a sector that knows something about hooking and keeping an individual’s interest.

All gamification programs integrate some core elements. They fuse stories, missions, incentives and real-time feedback into a clearly defined process or activity. As in a video game, stories and missions can be anything that captivates and catalyzes a person’s interest over an extended period.

Incentives can range from simple leaderboards, ranks and badges to the creation of virtual currencies that can be traded or cashed in. Because of its power and flexibility, gamification can also be used to influence customer and stakeholder behaviour.

There are numerous examples of gamification at the workplace that are achieving significant business results, while boosting engagement.


Last year, this world-class retailer wanted to improve cashier throughput and customer service so it made the checkout process more like a game. Each time cashiers are checking out a patron, a red light tells them they are too slow in scanning an item, or a green light shows they are on target. The cashier is then provided with a real-time score — based on the transaction’s speed and accuracy over multiple transactions — so she can monitor her performance.

This simple adaptation of gamification principles has proven to be very effective at reducing checkout times, increasing cashier efficiency and enhancing employee morale.

Global pharmaceutical firm

A Canadian subsidiary of a global pharmaceutical firm (which wanted to remain anonymous) was looking to increase internal alignment and understanding around its drug commercialization process. A secondary objective was to explore ways to streamline this process to get to market sooner. Previous corporate attempts had failed due to the ineffectiveness of “push” style communication initiatives and employee apathy.

To break through, the company developed a commercialization game based on the mechanics of popular games such as Monopoly and Life. All middle and senior managers were organized in teams and required to play the game at an off-site function. Armed with deeper process knowledge, they were then asked to brainstorm ways to improve workflows.

The exercise produced some amazing results. Awareness and understanding of the firm’s commercialization process went up more than 350 per cent. More importantly, some of the brainstormed ideas led to significant time improvements in the go-to-market process. The company decided to roll the game out to more than a dozen other international subsidiaries.


Pharmacy software company Omnicare was looking to significantly improve help desk turnaround times. To do this, it turned the customer service process into a game. It created a leaderboard to better motivate the customer service reps. The reps were challenged at the start of each shift, with intrinsic rewards such as points and badges given for successful achievements and milestones.

Performance gains have been impressive. The average speed of an answered call declined from three minutes to less than one minute while the percentage of abandoned calls was reduced from 20 per cent to below 10 per cent.

Making it happen

HR leaders looking to introduce gamification should understand the four pillars of gamification:

business strategy: Gamification initiatives are tightly coupled to core business strategies and metrics.

motivational science: Successful games leverage key learnings of behavioural and social psychology such as the importance of continuous feedback, fun, competition and social recognition.

game lessons: Popular games (especially of the video variety) have been shown to trigger the release of brain endorphins, which lead to higher levels of blissful happiness.

technology: A variety of technology companies have deployed enterprise-level platforms that can run different games, track results and synthesize the learnings.

Employees just want recognition, fun and meaning in their jobs. Gamification enables managers to efficiently deliver on these needs in a variety of ways right across the organization. Happy, game-playing workers bring compelling business payoffs, such as higher productivity and collaboration, more innovation and stronger morale — without the pain of change management initiatives and the cost of extrinsic rewards.

Mitchell Osak is managing director of Quanta Consulting in Toronto, a management consultancy focusing on strategy, gamification and organizational transformation. He can be reached at (416) 937-2106 or [email protected].

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