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Guest Blogger

By Marcus Thornley, CEO of Play Consulting 

Gamification in the workplace is fast gaining traction. The gamification industry itself is estimated to be worth $2.8 billion and there’s a clear business case for the workplace, as organisations look to boost employee engagement to improve business success.

The introduction of gamification as a way to motivate the workforce is taking many forms. For example, Deloitte and Samsung have incorporated badges, leaderboards and status symbols to transform their leadership training, while Google has gamified the more mundane tasks like completing expenses.

However, despite the various applications, there is one underlying trend that is common when looking at gamification and employees – the tendency for senior-level management to view these initiatives as directed at employees, rather than something designed for employees. The issue is that this top-down approach fails to deliver the very thing it must do – to engage end users – and only serves to reinforce an existing organisational structure of line management. The sole responsibility of the rewards and recognition process remains with those people who are senior to their direct reports and who are typically not involved in day-to-day activity.

In many organisations, the power of employee recognition, whether it’s giving praise, rewards or badges, remains with the management team. Employees receive information about their own successes, but will not be privy to witnessing others’ achievements or play an active role in highlighting success of others – within their peer group or the managerial team.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When introduced in the right way, bottom-up gamification of employee engagement can bring true democratisation to the workplace, changing organisational structures to every person to openly recognise their colleagues and share successes – at any level.

Content sharing is key

At the core of employee engagement is the notion that people are driven by a desire to contribute and are keen to attach value to what they are doing for the business – if the business will only let them. When employees understand how they contribute to the success of the organisation, they are much more likely to be engaged and motivated in their efforts.

Democratising recognition in the workplace challenges existing management structures. It removes the barriers of anonymity between teams, management levels and locations to allow any employee to understand and appreciate every person in the company, from back office staff to frontline customer service employees, to the CEO.

Content sharing plays a critical role, creating the visibility and transparency that brings familiarity and a sense of personality that others can easily see. I don’t mean sending messages or asking questions, but sharing rich and visually-appealing information that tells the workforce something about you, your values, what you have been doing, what you have achieved or how someone has delivered ‘above and beyond’.

For example, while the CEO may spend his/her time out of the office or behind closed doors, a quick update on a regional branch visit, with a photo of the team, will naturally make them appear more accessible and engaged. Or perhaps a sales team can share their latest milestone figures alongside a glowing quote from a satisfied customer.

Once employees can view and engage with content that brings personality and work to life, their understanding of the contributions that everyone makes in a business increases considerably. Real-time updates and useful information can inspire and motivate others to replicate these successes or share their own ‘winning moments’ across a company-wide platform.

One size won’t always fit all

Implementing a gamification strategy for employee engagement is only the first step, however. It can be easy to fall into the trap of rolling an application or platform out across the business without understanding how every single employee will want to use it or what they will perceive as valuable. Gamification on its own isn’t a universal panacea – its success lies in its customisation to a particular employee context.

In the study ‘Psychological Perspectives on Motivation through Gamification’, a link was discovered between ensuring gamification and varying staff skills were matched accurately, implying a “one size fits all” approach could not be relevant.

Ultimately, this means the accolades, rewards and ways of engaging with employees must be considered and applied appropriately to suit the needs different roles, teams and functional areas. For example, while a sales team may be looking to hit revenue figures, customer services may be motivated by customer satisfaction or feedback, while consultants will be encouraged to complete timesheets to reflect billable hour goals.

While a single platform for employee engagement can serve the entire organisation, having the flexibility to go beyond the notion of ‘one size fits all’ is key. An element of personalisation will maximise the appeal and involvement of all employees, by ensuring maximum relevance.

Shared ‘community’ responsibility

It’s usual for some employees (and also middle management) to be cautious when they are placed into situations in which the barriers of hierarchy are lessened. The old industrial organisational structures that companies are organised around, and the strict hierarchies they have, can be a crutch that’s limiting but comforting. Encouragement is required to showcase that it’s acceptable to both engage with colleagues at all levels and recognise achievements across the board.

Therefore, for gamification to truly help democratise the workplace, key management teams cannot just diminish all obligation once reward-giving has become a shared responsibility. In fact, the most successful employee engagement schemes have been those with active sponsors within the business.

Ensuring there are key people who can drive the initiative, particularly at the early stages, is vital to change the company culture and create a real sense of community.  Management in particular should be visibly contributing content and highlighting successes, thereby setting a precedent for all parties to get involved. This doesn’t mean they should be controlling the content, but instead instilling a sense of openness and visibility that can be filtered throughout even the most junior levels.

As a shared platform, it may be reasonable to assume there should be some level of ‘policing’ applied. But in practice, this is seldom needed. In fact, the employee engagement platforms that thrive are those where management has the confidence to open up sharing to all. To do otherwise would simply support established hierarchies.

The companies that have seen the most success in using the Play Totem app, including Bupa and PwC, have done so by actively instilling an ethos of open and honest communication. Employees feel just as confident sharing work activities as they do team photos enjoying a night out together. It’s creating a real sense of community, which simply couldn’t happen on channels such as email, Slack or Yammer.

Employee engagement for all

Gamification in employee engagement can be a powerful force. Organisations that can successfully break down hierarchal barriers by encouraging employees to engage with their organisation will ultimately be the ones that flourish the most. Employees need to be inspired to think of their career as a series of positive incentives and successes, rather than a taxing climb up the notorious corporate ladder and a fight to be seen and heard by those at the top.

Employee engagement is not about flattening established business structures completely, but rather removing the ‘perception’ of organisational structures, allowing employees at all levels to feel confident in openly sharing their ideas, activities and successes with everyone in the company.

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