CAREER DEVELOPMENT / AUG. 30, 2014
version 2, draft 2

When Gamification Goes Wrong

It’s widely recognised that employee engagement levels in our workplaces are at rock bottom levels.  This malaise has prompted many organisations to attempt to rectify the situation by making their offices a more joyful place that not only makes work more fun, but also creates a bond between employees.

As we live in an age of collaboration and enterprise social networking, this makes sense, right?  Well kind of, except most attempts at doing this kind of thing have done little except provide a rich seam of material for satires such as The Office.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be quite so dire, and the dot-com era has shaped our view of fun at work, not as something that is separate from our work, but as something that is built in to the work itself.  Many technology companies have for instance invested in a range of facilities that offer employees the chance to blow off steam whilst at work, whether that’s fusbal machines or beer in the boardroom.

This trend has intensified in recent years, with gamification now a much more common presence in the modern workplace, whilst open innovation has shown the allure of rewarding and challenging work as an intrinsic motivator in its own right.

A final nail in the forced fun coffin?

Forced fun, in the sense of specifically designed work social events, are still common in our offices however, whether in the form of the staff Christmas party or team away days.  A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania should issue a note of warning for any HR manager believing such things are worthwhile.

The study divided participants from a medium sized company into two groups, one of which was asked to engage in game like activity at work, whilst the other was not.  The game itself was a basketball related jamboree where players would earn points by closing deals with their customers.  The points system was as follows:

  • Closing a hot lead would earn 2 points
  • Closing a cold lead would earn 3 points

The competition would last for 18 days, at the end of which the winning team would earn some champagne.

The impact on motivation and performance

The levels of motivation and engagement amongst the participants were measured both before the competition began and at the end of it.  Participants were surveyed for things such as their general motivation levels, how they felt about the game, whether it improved their productivity and so on.

The data pulled from the survey was then cross referenced against actual sales and performance data from both the game playing group and the non-playing control group.

Now, you’d think that the game playing group would do better, right?  Well yes, and no.  The outcome depended very much on the mentality of the players themselves.  The study found that when players were keen on games in their leisure time, then the game would increase their work performance quite significantly.  When playing games was not something an employee enjoyed outside of work however, their results were awful.  Both sales performance and employee wellbeing dropped dramatically.

Do games = employee engagement?

What’s more, the results also showed that the game, and indeed the performance in the game, didn’t do a great deal to shift employee engagement.  Those that won in the game were not really any more engaged and happy than were those who had lost.

Gamification is undoubtedly a hot topic right now, but this research underlines that applying it in the workplace may not be as straightforward as we thought.  The mentality of your employees may go a long way to determining the success of the project.

The researchers conclude that the best approach may be to solicit input from employees before actioning anything.  Wise words indeed.

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