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Gamification of Employee Engagement

Thursday, August 8, 2013
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In a recent study conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee engagement was identified as the “most important challenge facing HR organizations.” Some interesting applications of neuroscience to the study of engagement have yielded promising results, by tapping into the brain’s reward response system.

But reward programs can be expensive, leading many budget-strapped human capital managers to seek other options. In fact, there is evidence that monetary rewards, in absence of other cues that put that reward in context, may not even be the most effective option for stimulating and sustaining employee engagement.

Defining employee engagement

What does employee engagement look like? There are a variety of definitions out there, but here’s one from Forbes magazine: “Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”

This definition, of course, is a long-accepted view of engagement based on outward, observable behavior. Until recently, we had no way of knowing what the employee was actually thinking or feeling, so we relied on visible behavior to gives us clues to their inner life.

Through brain imaging experiments on live subjects, we now know what a highly engaged brain looks like. Wouldn’t we want all of your employees to have this sort of brain signature? Imagine the productivity gains that might be possible with a workforce full of highly engaged people.

We actually don’t have to imagine those gains; the research tells us what companies with engaged employees are more productive than those with only average engagement.

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So what can leaders do to engage their subjects to such a high degree? Should they offer rewards for performance, create successive levels of ever-increasing challenge and reward, build social communities of practice, or give top performers public recognition in front of their peers? All of the above and more have been well documented in books on leadership and motivation. But there is a new approach that may reveal even more promise: gamification of work.

Game as the ultimate engagement lever

The key to understanding the power of video games is brain plasticity. The brain is constantly rebuilding and re-configuring itself, in response to every single experience. According to scientist Daphne Bavelier, frequent players of video games actually retrain their brains to be better at detecting fine details, tracking the movement of objects, paying attention, making decisions, understanding and manipulating multimedia, and many other behaviors that can be useful in the workforce.

That’s right: one of the most engaging activities that the average person will ever experience is playing a video game. You might think that this statement applies only to persons under a certain age, but this is not true. According to Bavelier, ALL brains respond to the stimuli found in a well-designed computer game. The key is to find the right game—one that is loaded with the features that stimulate creativity, provides just the right amount of challenge, frustration and success, and pulls the participant into a world where they can interact with peers and be recognized for their achievements.

Making a game out of work

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What can the study of game design teach us about engagement in the workplace? After all, you might be thinking, games are games and work is, well, work. The truth is, many organizations have already found ways to “gamify” the workplace, yielding measurable results in terms of employee engagement, which drives productivity and retention.

A recent study pointed to the trend toward the gamification of work, in an effort to make coming to work and doing a great job as addictive and self-motivating as the best video games. According to Gartner, more than 50 percent of companies that manage innovation processes will implement gamification in the workplace by 2015. Google is actually experimenting with turning engagement into an algorithm.

Getting started with gamification

It’s not as simple as putting in a few foosball tables in the break room and making every day “casual Friday,” however. Gamification is a design discipline which must be applied consistently if it is going to yield expected results. To start thinking about how to gamify your operation, take a look at an excellent presentation by Ralph Koster, one of the foremost authorities on game design in the world. You don’t have to apply all of these techniques to be successful, nor should you. Just think about introducing a few of these components into your workplace and see what happens. If engagement goes up, you might add some additional components to your “game” later on. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Incorporate social networking. One fundamental lever of video games is socialization. You can leverage social networking as a way for employees to recognize each other. This could mean “liking” the work of other employees, or linking to each other’s work portfolios. Concerned about protecting your proprietary information? No worries; all of this can be done inside your firewall by using a variety of existing tools behind the firewall.
  • Reward with badges. Badges have been proven to be effective to boost customer loyalty and engagement. If you think of your employees as your ultimate customers, let employees earn “badges” as a way to earn visible recognition for their contribution to the business.
  • Construct transparent compensation. Making the compensation system transparent, so that employees know exactly how they can earn a raise or a bonus, can boost productivity by 7% and employee retention by 41%. Passing the “fairness test,” a key component in game player engagement.
  • Balance teamwork and competition. Experiment with the balance of competition and teamwork, since both components are highly engaging – but tend to cancel each other out if applied to excess.
  • Make results highly public. Create a public scoreboard where employees can see instant performance results on an individual and team level, across the organization. ASTD has plenty of resources to help you get started with a balanced scorecard.

Engage your ultimate customer: employees

Remember that every employee is your ultimate customer. Each day, they truly wake up and make at least two crucial decisions:

  • Will I come to work today?
  • Will I put in my best effort or go through the motions?

How they answer will be influenced by a wide array of experiences and memories. And perhaps, how well you, as their leader, have decided to play the game.
For more on neuroscience applications for human capital, check out the full blog series here.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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