Entrepreneurs are treating their companies like games – and the business has never been better.
What first began as a few ideas for improving the consumer experience of applications and customer service is now infiltrating the very fibre of company culture as cold hard policy.
And while gamification has been around for a few years now, more entrepreneurs are starting take it seriously. Australian businesses are no exception.
And it’s improving productivity in a big way, according to experts in the field.
“When you look at the key metrics in our business we use for judging success, we’ve seen now we’re working smarter, and not necessarily harder,” says Craig Somerville from Reload Media.
“Some of the resources we have are just unbelievable, and game mechanics can be applied to every single role, every single job in our business,” says Gary Ng of eWeb Marketing. “Some may be trickier than others, but we’ve seen the productivity increase – and not just by a marginal amount.”
Applying gamification to apps and programs is the most popular way to use the strategy and businesses ranging from start-ups to large corporates are using games as a way to market. But actually adapting these techniques to the corporate culture of a business is something that’s taken a little bit longer to take hold.
Experts, however, say you should be doing it straight away.
“With the projects I have seen, and the colleagues I’ve been working with, we’ve seen massive increases in productivity,” says Marigo Raftopoulos, founder of enterprise gamification consultancy Strategic Games Lab.
“But not only that, we’re seeing employees become more engaged – more than ever.”
An introduction to enterprise gamification
The essence of gamification is this – taking techniques from games, including video games, and then applying them to everyday life in company culture.
This can include giving employees points for completing certain tasks in order to gain a reward, or “levelling up” to different ranks which provide certain opportunities and status. It creates a sense of competition and, at its best, urges staff to do more.
While this sounds like a normal rewards structure, proponents argue there are several key differences. As Raftopoulos explains, businesses are facing an ongoing issue of low engagement as staff become distracted by social media, technology, and a culture that demands they work away from the office.
Raftopoulos argues this is a problem gamification can solve.
“Only a minority of your staff are actually engaged while on the job, and a sizeable amount are just not there mentally,” she says.
“You also have the fact that the majority are looking for another job in some capacity. So businesses are trying to increase productivity and innovation, but staff just aren’t responding.”
Studies from organisations such as the Institute of Management and Randstad continually show the majority of employees are looking for new jobs, as unemployment remains low, while it’s well known that longer hours don’t necessarily equal productivity.
Raftopoulos argues gamification can get these staff more involved in the business, producing a higher level of engagement and productivity.
“With the projects I’ve seen, and the clients I’ve helped, we’ve seen massive improvements in productivity. You’re looking at people generating new ideas, being more positive, and just being more involved in the business.”
This isn’t a new concept, either. Gamification is influencing apps in a big way, such as the badge system in foursquare, and dozens of marketers are using viral campaigns across social networks for advertising.
What’s new, Raftopoulos says, is the number of businesses using gamification in human resources policy.
“This is bigger than social media,” she says. “It just builds on the premise of social media that we need to be more playful in our workplaces to get problems solved.”
This isn’t just an experiment – it has traction in the corporate world. Marketers such as Gabe Zichermann are writing books and holding packed conferences on the idea that gamification can influence and enhance companies by getting employees more involved.
Of course, there’s plenty of opposition. For one thing, critics say gamification isn’t anything new, it’s just renaming incentive programs, like cash bonuses or any other reward at the end of good performance.
But Raftopoulos – and people like Zichermann – argue this isn’t about the end goal, it’s about the participation.
In one talk sponsored by Google, Zichermann argues redemption isn’t the core value of a loyalty program and that you often have to compensate status for cash in a typical reward structure. You can’t provide status, so you offer money – gamification argues the opposite.
Raftopoulos says gamification isn’t about the reward; it’s about status, and the process of getting people involved.
“With the rewards system you’re only really dealing with intrinsic motivators, and that’s never enough. The more you offer external rewards, there is always inflation there and you’ll need to revise them.”
“But with gamification, you’re giving people practice to be involved, the opportunity to be expressive and contribute more. That’s what it’s all about.”
And it seems to be working. There are businesses adopting these techniques with rousing success – and SmartCompany has spoken to three of them to find out how they’re doing it.
Using gamification as a way to engage
E-Web Marketing is well known for its unusual office practices, which in no small part help it appear on “best places to work” lists. The company has done away with managers, opting for more of a flat management structure, while it provides games and other recreational activities for staff in break rooms.
But after a while, Irene Lee found that more staff were more excited to play video games on break than they were to start work – a curious trait in such a comfortable work environment. She wanted to fix that.
“I did some research on game mechanics, and what it was that influence people’s behaviour,” she says, having caught on to the gamification trend.
“Games give us a purpose, allow us to solve our problems, and show us progress. I thought that was really impressive and wanted to use that to help drive engagement.”
Lee started off slowly, introducing gamification techniques during PowerPoint presentations. For every person who was distracted by their phone, or pieces of paper, they lost one “point”. Whenever a staff member answered a question correctly, they received one.
The response was immediate.
“For the first time, hands just started shooting up to answer questions,” she says. That was good enough, but Lee says the most important thing was that staff members actually started taking risks where they hadn’t before.
“One person, who never participates in any of these, just started guessing answers and putting forward ideas.”
This is what differs gamification in Lee’s mind than just a simple rewards structure. It provides an incentive for people to actually participate, rather than just work towards an end goal and do the minimum. Competition provides a way to compare your status against other workers, which drives productivity.
And then there are the benefits for employers who want to ease up on the yearly job reviews.
“It’s immediate feedback. You don’t have to wait a year to find out if you’re doing well. Apply game mechanics correctly in your workplace and you’ll know every single unit of how someone is performing.”
Judging by the effectiveness of the PowerPoint presentations, co-founder Gary Ng started rolling the projects out across the rest of the company. He noticed staff weren’t encouraging enough of each other, so he devised a system where employees would be given points if they give positive feedback to colleagues.
After the gamification mechanic was applied the entrepreneur said he didn’t just notice staff being friendlier – they were being more productive and reaching targets quicker.
“The productivity has increased at least 100%. Game mechanics can’t be applied to every job, but we’ve seen productivity increase across the company substantially.”
“If you wanted to get more sales results, or a better marketing response, we’ve applied game mechanics to get people competing, and it works.”
Improving production with games
While E-Web Marketing may have adopted gamification techniques, it probably employs the obvious demographic to do so – most of its workers are in their 20s.
But at Reload Media, co-founder Craig Somerville says he hasn’t had much experience with gaming at all. But he’s noticed benefits already.
“I’m personally not much of a gamer, but a few guys in our management team are, and they were really keen to do it.”
Taking their advice, Somerville started applying some game techniques to key performance indicators so staff could compare targets.
“So client resize rates, satisfaction scores, and those sorts of things. We want to incorporate rewards for these across the country.”
Reload Media is a sizeable company, with 55 employees across its global operations. But Somerville says you don’t need to be in a massive business to use these sorts of techniques. In fact, he says, it’s applicable to any size.
“There is always a challenge in how to attract and motivate the best staff. Gamification has really shown that among tech-savvy staff, it’s a great way to engage.”
Engagement is a word Somerville chooses to use most often, saying the rewards aren’t about the end goal, but about getting staff involved in aspects of the company they may not have previously experienced.
“We have ‘high score’ achievements for getting clients and across the board KPIs that tap into the scores each staff get. So if we have staff that re-sign clients, that adds to their score, and they can compare how they’re all doing.
While Reload Media may not have adopted gamification as enthusiastically as the team at E-Web Marketing, Somerville agrees it’s still a great way to provide feedback to staff.
Already Somerville says he’s seen people work in a different way and with improved results.
“I don’t necessarily think you can judge the amount it’s increased by, but it’s about aligning the interests of the business with the interests of the individual and using key metrics to boost your staff’s engagement.”
“Whenever you look at motivators for staff, money always comes up third or fourth. This is different. It gets people engaged and working smarter, not harder.”
The international roll-out
“We’re in the process of converting our entire business into a big video game.”
G Adventures isn’t located in Australia, but its chief executive Bruce Poon Tip is smitten with gamification and wants to see more Australian businesses trying it out.
The company, which turns over in excess of $250 million, has thousands of employees across the world and places a huge emphasis on culture. Staff interviews all new hires – including executives –before they are given approval. It’s a company constantly trying to explore new ways of managing people.
And gamification is next. If E-Web Marketing and Reload Media represent businesses that have already implemented gamification, G Adventures is in the process of rolling those same techniques out on a much larger scale, requiring a vastly different set of skills and patience.
“We’re doing lots of focus groups, and we’re connecting all our company into digital information first. We just finished a big project to be able to find the information we need.”
“We’re running games internally, we have something called the leadership camp, where all of our people can apply to win to join this leadership training camp. We have a big game globally called “create your own adventure”. I can go on the trip with the winner and it becomes a trip that we sell in the brochure.”
But it isn’t just little games here and there. Poon Tip says “if you want a reward, you have to win it”.
“I can give you a hundred examples. Nothing is for free anymore. We’ve been looking at this idea we got specifically from Google for all our sales expenses. We’ve turned them all into games.”
The sales teams have been given a challenge – spend less than your budget and you can have options for what you do with that extra money.
“That’s encouraging people to spend less when they go on staff travel,” he says. While this differs from the ‘engagement method’ used by these Australian companies, Poon Tip says it’s something he can use to get more people emotionally involved in the business.
“It changes the way you think about things, how can you implement gaming into everything we do. Even automatic things like phone systems. How can you turn it into a game?”
But while G Adventures, unlike Reload Media and E-Web Marketing, may have thousands of employees, Poon Tip says the inspiration for gamification is still the same – a need to connect with a younger generation of workers and make them as productive as possible.
“My office is full of gamers. And I think the next generation is going to be inspired by gaming, because the next generation is coming up in a gaming culture.”
“We’re just thinking about the future.”