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Winning the game

Gamification’s transformative role in people management

Gamification is a vibrant way to engage employees, reward performance and boost results, especially among younger generations. By Scott Beagrie

With the vast majority of its 8,000-plus workforce comprised of Millennials or Generation Y-ers, the global business consultancy and IT outsourcing company Virtusa has had to shape its HR strategies and programmes to meet its employees’ constantly evolving and demanding requirements.

“They want immediate appreciation, feedback and recognition,” explains Sundararajan Narayanan, senior vice president and global head of HR at the company.

One of the ways Virtusa delivers this is through gamification, defined by business analyst Forrester Research as “the insertion of game dynamics and mechanics into nongame activities to drive a desired behaviour”. The company started small, trialling gamification in pockets of the organisation several years ago before fully embedding it in its business processes. Tapping into individuals’ natural desire to compete for status and achievement, leaderboards on TV screens are found in Virtusa’s reception areas and lobbies, providing high-visibility of its top-performing teams.

Narayanan is in no doubt about the benefits of adopting gamification to engage talent and elicit high performance by encouraging healthy competition among staff. He even claims tasks that previously took three weeks to perform are now completed in under two. “It’s a key tool to retain and motivate our team. It can also make HR more efficient,” he says.

Recent years have brought an upturn in organisations using gamification to increase customer engagement with their brand or products. But it is also being used in a variety of other ways internally, including to motivate and engage employees, recruit new talent, deliver training and even change behaviour.

According to business analyst Gartner, gamification can “dramatically increase” participation in HR processes. Typical elements taken from the gaming world and intended to promote collaboration and drive innovation to achieve specific goals are league tables or leaderboards, point-scoring, achievement badges, missions and ‘levels’.

However, in a 2012 report, Gartner warned of the potential failure of enterprise gamification projects, citing poor design as one reason. Two years on, the signs suggest some organisations are becoming more clued-up. Global media and communications company PHD’s hire of a leading US game designer (see box, above) is perhaps an indicator of what is to follow.

But with gamification still regarded as something of a novelty and largely untested by HR, questions understandably are being raised about how best to measure its effectiveness and whether it delivers true return on investment.

Jon Ingham, HR blogger and executive consultant at Strategic Dynamics Consultancy Services, reckons it’s too early to know if the touted benefits are just hype. “Even if a business has seen a return, a lot of this will be down to the primacy effect,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean that they will gain the same benefits if they do the same thing again, or that other businesses will do so from following the same approaches.”

Richard Hamilton, marketing director at online recruitment site Guru Careers, agrees that problems can arise with gamification and long-term engagement: “After the novelty factor wears off, enthusiasm tends to ebb away.”

As with any organisational initiative, it is essential to measure gamification’s effectiveness, but this shouldn’t simply be based on usage. It is easy to get carried away if implementation of gamification has encouraged a large percentage of a workforce to participate in a particular programme, but it must be determined whether this is linked to specific goals. “It’s about listening to the data and gauging feedback from users, but also correctly quantifying gamification methods against more tried-andtested routes,” explains Hamilton.

PHD has been testing a gamified planning tool that uses positive psychology to reinforce the organisation’s values and encourage desired behaviour. According to chief innovation officer Frances Ralston-Good, it has increased collaboration within the business and with clients, and is boosting employee engagement. “It isn’t just a soft HR-type statement,” she explains. “It is something that is really making a difference to the business in terms of engagement and employees generating more daring and effective ideas.”

Three years ago, PHD managed only a 190th placing in The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For listing, but this year it was ranked 18th. “We believe this is linked to the positive psychology [of the gamification],” Ralston-Good says, adding that an 87% score was achieved – the highest in the table – for the question of whether employees felt colleagues had their best interests at heart.

Such altruism is also incorporated in the company’s collaborative communication system, through which employees can reward colleagues with ‘Pings’ in recognition of good work. “Every time someone comes up with a good idea I can give them a Ping,” says Ralston-Good.

At Virtusa, an engagement platform called ‘V+’ is claimed to provide “Virtusans with a distinctive Millennial experience”. The company has also created a gamified motivational programme called Rave (Recognise and Value Everyone), through which employees can share their appreciation of outstanding work delivered by individuals or teams. The system was introduced 18 months ago, and wholesale adoption by the workforce means around 7,000 ‘Raves’ are sent every week, reports Narayanan.

Every project at Virtusa is also given a ‘CDI’ or ‘customer delight index’. Narayanan believes such tools help to make employees’ actions and achievements quantifiable and transparent. “With CDI, we can see who is in the top five and who is in the bottom five,” he explains. “It pushes people to increase the index score. And, when that happens, repeat business increases, which in turn raises revenue and, then, shareholder value.”

Narayanan also believes such gamification techniques make HR initiatives both “outcome- and performance-driven”, have made Virtusa a more “vibrant and transparent” company and have helped to lower attrition rates. “People are looking at ways to elevate HR practices and gamification helps to do this,” he explains.

To date, those companies that are claiming the most success with gamification are the ones that have invested considerable thought, effort and time into its application. Ingham stresses that gamification will prove most beneficial when it is used as an overall approach to HR, rather than a discrete initiative. “So, for me, it’s something an organisation should be looking to implement across its HR architecture or not at all, depending on its culture,” he says.

Meanwhile, Guru Careers’ Hamilton cautions HR not to think of gamification only in an online context, and suggests it works best when implemented as part of an “augmented approach”, citing a Friday reward scheme he has observed based on completion of trainingrelated tasks. “Employees were automatically delivered crates of beer on a Friday afternoon, subject to the successful completion of the online tasks,” he says. “They had to pull together to get things done, and the short timeframes ensured rewards were always in sight, driving high levels of teamwork and engagement. The ability to pull offline and online together seamlessly really excites people.”


How PHD turned its global workforce into players

PHD is a global media and communications company with 80 offi ces operating in 70 markets. Its services include communications and media planning, research and insight, sponsorship and branded content, and search and affiliate marketing.

When the agency wanted to unify its practices across all its offi ces globally, “the best way we could find to achieve that was to codify it, put it in a piece of technology, and place it on everyone’s desktop,” explains chief innovation offi cer Frances Ralston-Good.

The result is ‘Source’, a collaborative communications planning system used by employees, who log into it in the same way they would to a computer game. Following 18 months of alpha and beta testing, the system was rolled out across the organisation in May.

It has also been made accessible on smartphones and tablets for the first time to further support flexible working. Source is more than just a planning and production tool. Built upon the theories of positive psychology, it seeks to drive the ethos, values and collaborative behaviours that PHD wishes employees to develop and exhibit. “We realised that we could map those gamification outcomes to psychology and then back into our business,” explains Ralston-Good.

“It is a powerful tool for bringing harmony within the business and among staff, as well as in terms of the output they generate.” While PHD thought that building gamifi cation into Source would yield certain benefi ts, it wanted to avoid fostering a culture of “negative competitiveness”, so it enlisted the help of US game designer Jane McGonigal. ‘Streaks’ and ‘runs’ were introduced as a feature on the leaderboard so employees could win within different timeframes, such as a day or a week, or according to typology or behaviour, such as ‘most improved innovator’ or ‘most improved collaborator’.

“McGonigal helped us see that games give people a sense of belonging, as well as a sense of optimism and urgency about their work and a feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves,” says Ralston-Good.

The gamification built into Source also helps to reinforce company values and desired employee behaviour. Five behaviours are being constantly monitored, and the profi le is also embedded into employees’ personal development. “There will be a bar chart on the top of our appraisals that reveal what your strengths are, such as being a great collaborator or innovator,” explains Ralston- Good. “It is about reinforcing the positive, which we think will result in fantastic use of the system. Employees see that if they play the game, they will be recognised and rewarded via personal development.”

Using gamification beyond L&D

Talent attraction/recruitment

Recruitment has led the way with gamification. A number of major organisations, including KPMG, GCHQ and hotel group Marriott have devised games to attract talent. Whether it helps reach the right candidate more quickly and effectively is still up for debate, but it does increase brand awareness, and can help to mark out an employer as innovative.

Engagement and retention

The object of a game is to engage users and organisations have been quick to seize upon gamification as a way to increase motivation, engagement and retention. Engagement in the initiative is the easy part – HR must ensure the gamification has sufficient depth to increase an individual’s engagement with both their everyday role and the organisation generally. The two won’t necessarily come hand-inhand, and the chances of success appear greater when gamification is embedded into overall practices, rather than just one application.

Corporate wellness

A comparatively new area, but organisations such as US-based Hubbub are using gamification to help improve employee wellness. Employees can sign up to and participate in activities related to nutrition, work-life balance and exercise that have been designed to inject some fun into the process of getting fitter.