Gamification is a hot topic these days: 70 percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies are using gamified platforms. The hope is that work will be more fun, employees will be more engaged, productivity will go up, and turnover will go down.
Unfortunately, gamification is likely being overused or misused in many of these companies. For knowledge work, which requires creativity, innovation, and intellectual agility, gamification is often a waste of resources — and we’ve got data to prove it.
First, some background: gamification means wrapping work tasks in a system that has game-like properties: points, leveling up, leaderboards, badges, etc. For example, if you work in a call center, you might receive points for every call you successfully resolve. Employees’ point totals could then be displayed on a leaderboard in the office.
For knowledge workers, gamification underperforms for two reasons:
1. Gamification often creates “if-then” rewards.
There is a robust body of research showing that “if-then” rewards inhibit creativity and diminish problem-solving abilities. If you run a widget factory or a call center (where speedily executing repetitive tasks is important) then gamification might work for you. But if you employ knowledge workers and rely on their creativity and ingenuity to build your business, then you should probably steer clear.
2. Gamification lacks any real-world value.
Sure, you might be able to get your employees excited about collecting digital badges, or seeing their names on a leaderboard — for a few months. But just as people tire of playing the same video game, our data suggests that your employees will get bored with your gamification system and stop using it.
When we first launched Bonusly two years ago, we gave companies a choice:
Option 1: Small bonuses. Employees recognize each other with small bonuses to celebrate great work. Each small bonus is attached to a currency amount, and that currency can be exchanged for money or gift cards.
Option 2: Gamification. Recognition without any real-world value. Employees give recognition with a certain number of “points” attached. These points are used for calculating leaderboards but can’t be exchanged for anything with real-world value.
We measured participation in terms of the percent of employees who give recognition each month. From the outset, we noticed a “Gamification Deficit,” wherein companies with the gamification option participated at significantly lower rates than companies with the small bonus option. After 18 months, we dropped the gamification option because it performed so poorly:
The graph above shows participation rates at gamification companies relative to small bonus companies.
At the start, companies that chose the gamification option saw 15 percent lower participation than in companies that chose the small bonus option. Even worse, participation in the gamification option dropped month after month, while participation in the small bonus option stayed consistently high.
By the time companies using gamification are in their 18th month, they see participation rates 50 percent lower than in accounts using small bonuses.
We aren’t the only ones who’ve seen this happen. Recently, OfficeVibe abandoned its workplace gamification product and pivoted to employee surveys. In the announcement of this pivot, Jacob Shriar wrote:
"Employees could earn points, badges, and other achievements in the platform. But to be frank, there was no value in this. The points were arbitrary, the badges meant nothing, there was no way to redeem points for anything, etc.
"This is a mistake a lot of companies make.
They add a 'gamification' component just for the fun of it...but unless your badges/achievements have any real value, there’s no point in implementing them."
Jacob and the OfficeVibe team should be commended for recognizing this and coming out strongly against gamification, and we join them in doing so. If you depend on your employees to be creative, innovative, agile, and adaptive, then gamification is probably a waste of your time and theirs.
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