Gamifying Employee Engagement

Renowned game designer Jane McGonigal describes gamers as super empowered, hopeful individuals, attributes that she believes can be channeled into real-world contexts. The business world today really needs a lot of super empowered and hopeful employees, given that 85% of them are currently either lacking in engagement or actively disengaged. And gamification can hopefully help businesses motivate and empower a mostly listless workforce to reverse nearly $7 trillion in lost productivity. 

Why Gamification Works

Gamification is the application of game design and behavioral design principles to nongame contexts in order to increase engagement, boost productivity, and achieve specific business outcomes. It leverages gaming dynamics like collaboration, chance, and progression to tap into employee motivators like recognition, competition, and rewards to improve engagement. A recent study confirms the effectiveness of applying gamification at work, with over 80% of employees indicating that gamification makes them more productive, more engaged, and happier.

While gamification does show a lot of promise in enhancing engagement and productivity, it is not nearly as simple as creating rewards and leaderboards or as straightforward as making the workplace fun. Successful gamification is a sustained strategic effort designed to address the distinct employee dynamics of a specific environment. There are, therefore, some key principles that have to be followed to ensure the success of enterprise gamification.

Key Principles for Successful Enterprise Gamification

Understand user-process dynamics: It would be impractical to try to stimulate any form of extrinsic or intrinsic motivation in users without first recognizing their needs, goals, preferences, aspirations, and behaviors. End-user research equips companies with the insights required to pinpoint issues that gamification needs to address and thereby define the fundamental framework that will guide the design and implementation of the program. Because game elements have to be integrated into existing processes, it is also essential to define user behaviors with respect to the processes they use.

Define the business case: There are three pillars to a robust business case for gamification—the organizational goals of gamification, the metrics that quantify the achievement of those goals, and the business value these goals will deliver. The statement of purpose must, therefore, lay out the behavioral, motivational, and/or attitudinal changes that are desired; the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will measure the degree of change; and the timeline for the entire effort. Defining quantitative KPIs that are relevant to the processes being targeted provides businesses with a pregamification baseline against which to compare the outcomes. More crucially, it makes it possible to assign a monetary value to the project, budget for it, and measure gamification return on investment (ROI).

Involve all stakeholders: Even a moderate-scale enterprise gamification project has to involve quite a few stakeholders from across the enterprise. Top management provides the strategic direction required to align the initiative with the core objectives of the organization. Technology leaders need to be involved to ensure full IT support in terms of infrastructure and man power. HR has to make sure that existing talent and performance management programs are linked to the stated purpose and desired outcomes of gamification. And last but not least, employees have to be aware of the influence that the program will have on their roles and responsibilities.

Measure, iterate, refresh: The KPIs defined in the business case provide organizations with the metrics required to track the progress of gamification. In addition, it is also important for project leaders to interact with other stakeholders and participants to gain a firsthand understanding of their experiences with the system. All insights derived from these interactions and the performance reports have to be rolled back into fine-tuning programs. An iterative approach to program development helps organizations focus the effort and ensure the most productive outcome.

When done right, gamification has the potential to create the outcomes that it promises. And many companies like Target, Cisco, Microsoft, and Deloitte have successfully leveraged gamification to enhance performance. Deloitte, for instance, gamified a senior leadership training program to reduce average training time by 50% and increase participation by almost as much. But there have been missteps as well.

Why Enterprise Gamification Fails

Healthcare brand Omnicare gamified its help desk with a leaderboard and cash rewards to reduce waiting times and achieved the opposite effect because employees found it too much like “Big Brother.” Incidentally, real-time performance feedback is not exactly a favorite gamification technique among employees. But the company did eventually get back on track with a completely revamped rewards system that focused on achievement and recognition rather than timing.

Some of the most common reasons as to why gamification fails involve a certain disregard for key principles. A gamification strategy that focuses on incidentals like contests and badges without any reference to business goals is designed to fail. Similarly, game designs based on inadequate user research, or simply bad designs, can fail to resonate with employees and result in a lack of engagement and participation. And finally, it is important to understand that not every process can be gamified and that gamifying a suboptimal process does not really help anything.


If applied strategically, gamification has the potential to deliver focused results in terms of enhanced engagement, motivation, and productivity. However, a quick-fix or one-size-fits-all approach to enterprise gamification and employee engagement can only end in disillusionment or, worse still, adverse results. Companies must be open to investing time and effort in understanding their employees and their processes and creating a strong conceptual foundation for gamification. They also need to find the right gamification partners with skill sets that blend an understanding of enterprise processes and employee motivations with expertise in game mechanics and design. Most important of all, companies need to take a long-term view of gamification as a strategy for enhancing and sustaining employee engagement.

Anand Srinivasan is the founder of Hubbion, a suite of free business apps and resources.

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