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Game Theory: People + Participation = Productivity

Maritz’s Michelle Pokorny explains how ‘gamification’ can make recognition programs more engaging 

By William Keenan

It turns out there’s an amazing correlation between the types of experiences that games deliver on and the things that drive motivation.

Engagement is defined in large part by the emotional attachment employees have to their jobs and the relationships they have with other people at work – including both coworkers and managers. That attachment and those relationships influence what employees are willing and able to do and how much effort they’re willing to spend.

“There are plenty of rational reasons to go to work – including a paycheck and other reasons,” says Michelle Pokorny, Solution Vice President and Solution Manager for Maritz Loyalty & Motivation. “And you may even be remotely satisfied with the work you do without ever being emotionally engaged in the work you’re doing, the purpose for which you’re doing it and the company’s purpose.”

Employee engagement, to a large degree, involves organizational efforts to strengthen and reinforce those relationships and deepen that emotional attachment, and showing appreciation and providing recognition is a key part of that. “Studies certainly show that there’s a correlation between higher, better engagement and higher satisfaction and performance,” says Pokorny. “But they’re not the same. In fact, the most recent Maritz Poll, shows that even though the performance of U.S. companies has gone up, the level of trust and engagement hasn’t followed. Employees are still fairly skeptical and not terribly trusting, and the levels of engagement haven’t risen with the improvement in business performance.”

How can organizations change that situation? How can they increase trust and engagement among employees as a way to boost both productivity and retention? How can they show appreciation to employees for their efforts on behalf of the company while at the same time soldifying employees’ emotional connection to the organization?

Engagement Strategies Magazine recently put these questions, and others, to Pokorny as part of a discussion on how game theory and game mechanics can make recognition programs more fun and engaging for participants.

ESM: What are some of the important things that companies can do with their recognition programs to create an increased sense of engagement and boost employee’s emotional connection to the organization?

Pokorny: First of all, recognition itself is one of the key drivers of engagement. How – and how consistently – an employee has received recognition and praise for doing a good job is going to be a key driver of engagement. And we’ve found that it’s consistently in the top three correlations to positive overall engagement measures – or the ‘impact’ of the engagement measure. If you’ve got a good score there, then you’re more likely to have a higher overall engagement score, and vice versa.

And obviously there are different types of recognition. You can be recognized by peers or by managers. There can be very formal recognition programs and more day-to-day, peer-to-peer and manager-to-employee initiatives, and really all of those are critical. But more than being just an opportunity on a quarterly, monthly, or annual basis to recognize a small group of folks, a recognition program builds engagement by building a culture and a solution where people are continually looking for things that people are doing right, and they have an avenue to express that appreciation. That’s the most powerful type of recognition. There can be rewards involved, but there’s research as well that suggests that just receiving praise and recognition can provide the same type of results as receiving a physical award. So creating an environment where people can and do recognize each other on an ongoing basis; that’s the critical element.

ESM: So how can ‘gamification’ – or applying game design and game mechanics – to employee recognition programs help to accomplish those goals and boost engagement?

Pokorny: Well, I’ll back up just a bit to explain that. It has been hard to ignore the advent and rise of the phenomenon of online social gaming. At Maritz we’re all about people, and that is what people are doing, right? So we started to look closely at it, and it led us to a deeper understanding of game science – just what it is about games that draws people in, to have them sitting there hours on end playing or being influenced to play though other online social communities. And it turns out there’s an amazing correlation between the types of experiences that games – game design, the games themselves, the game mechanics – deliver on and the things that drive motivation. The drive to acquire stuff and status, to compete, to cooperate, to have social interactions, to collect – all of those things are really parts of games. They’re the kinds of things that keep our attention, keep our interest and drive us to want to continue to do the things that are being asked of us in the game.

So if that works in a game situation, why not apply it to recognition? Essentially, gamification is about applying game mechanics, game elements, into non-game situations or experiences. As far as what we’re doing in the employee space – people like to play, and employees are people first, so we’ve incorporated some of those elements.

Gamification is largely about persuading you to do what you want to do anyway. It’s just making it more engaging, more fun and keeping your attention.

ESM: What are some of the game elements that you’ve integrated into recognition program design?

Pokorny: If you think in terms of the employee recognition platform, one of the things we’re incorporating and have integrated into our features is the ability to establish challenges for virtual rewards trophies. For example, the very first time you log onto a site you might earn a ‘newbie’ a ‘rookie’ badge. So right away you’re collecting badges just by logging onto the site. If there’s new information about employee programs, or a new training video, or something else you want employees to pick up, you can reward them virtually or with a badge for doing that. You can encourage people to be a regular recognizer of others as a way to earn badges or trophies or to move up a level, and to earn other privileges or opportunities as a result of that.

You can certainly make the program more of a social opportunity. Some of the things that we can provide are just news feeds, so everyone hears if a coworker has been recognized or if you’ve been recognized, if you’ve recognized somebody or if you’ve earned a challenge or a trophy. You can also create a kind of  ‘friending’ network inside the program experience so that all of an employees ‘friends’ then see their information, can comment on their recognition, see where they are in their challenges. All of that amplifies the experience of recognition and all of the activities around recognition programs and practices in a company. So it’s more fun. And contrary to what you may have heard, fun is not the opposite of work.

ESM: Do you have any recommendations for companies that might want to include this sort of element in their recognition programs? Any important do’s and don’ts?

Pokorny: In our employee recognition experiences – and we’re leveraging this across all of our solutions here at Maritz, including incentives, channel programs and consumer programs – we always start by leading clients through what we call a ‘design lab.’ Its purpose is to really think about who the players are going to be in the program, who are the people who are going to engage in this experience and what’s the story that we want to create? What’s the world that we’re going to create through this experience? And what are the activities, the hurdles that they’ll have to overcome? What do they want to do? What do we want them to do? Do those come together? And how can we put together a program that creates mutual wins for the client and the participants?

The use of game mechanics is very specific with each client. And what those badges or trophies or activities are is also specific to their culture. Certainly there are common features: giving and receiving recognition, being recognized for certain criteria, etc. If I get recognized for ingenuity three times, maybe I get a special badge. And as any good game designer would tell you, it’s an ongoing process. You can’t just put something out there and then let it run its course. Part of the solution is really monitoring program participation and looking at where people are or aren’t participating.

You also have to look at the offline elements of the program. What kind of offline communications will be taking place? What events are taking place? How do we integrate all of those things? In a way, game design has really influenced the whole way we go about designing employee engagement solutions.

ESM: And the ultimate goal is not so much to engage people in the recognition or platform that you’re using via the game elements, but to engage with other people in the organization?

Pokorny: Right. The badges, the activities, the behaviors are important, and they have to be things that people want to do. Gamification is largely about persuading you to do what you want to do anyway. It’s just making it more engaging, more fun and keeping your attention. There’s a lot of great science about how people like to collect things, like to have things in the right order, and it’s incredible how that influences our behavior.

You don’t want to have meaningless trophies and badges. Just throwing trophies or badges out there doesn’t make for a good game or a good participant experience. It’s really about being intentional and designing an experience that’s going to create the right wins. So we’re having clients start slow. You want to have some early wins to get people to understand the fun and social aspect of the experience. Surprise and delight are great tactics. You’re not manipulating or risking influencing somebody so they earn something; it’s a surprise. Again, it’s just trying to create more of those emotional connections so you can wire emotions around the positive impacts, the social experience and the community of recognition.

ESM: What type of education process is involved when you bring a game-based recognition platform to a potential client?

Pokorny: The nice thing about the technology is that it’s very intuitive. We’ve had the luxury of learning from a lot of good game designers and social network sites, so we’ve taken all of their best practices into account. If it’s not intuitive and easy, it’s not going to work anyway, so the conversation with the client is really centered around the question of ‘Why recognition?’ The training we do is more about why recognition is invaluable and how to do it effectively. And that’s often as simple as explaining out BET model: Be very specific about the Behavior when you recognize somebody – what they did and how they did it. Then, explain the Effect that behavior had on you personally and on the organization – how it’s aligned to the goals and the values. And then offer a sincere Thanks. If you do that, then your chance of success in having the full value of that recognition experience is heightened.

ESM: Can you share any results to demonstrate how quickly employees are likely to embrace ‘gamified’ recognition programs?

Pokorny: I can tell you that we’re integrating game science and implementing that in programs with a handful of clients right now, and we’ve certainly seen participation rates around those early gamified activities rise. Clearly, we’re hanging our hat on what we know from the broader population and the advent and growth of online social gaming, for which the statistics are staggering. We know people like to play, and we know employees, consumers and channel partners are people first, so we’re just trying to be smart with what both gaming and human science tell us, and leveraging that. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of deeper statistics very soon.

One of the great capabilities of the tool sets that we’re using is that they allow us to measure participation rates, which is a measure of engagement as well. It’s not the end-measure, but how frequently people are engaged in recognizing, being recognized, commenting, sharing and all of those kinds of things are certainly things we’re measuring. Common sense is going to tell you that if it’s more fun and more visually engaging and stimulating, then socially you’re more likely to be interested in it.

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