The traditional workplace was like a friendly, somewhat dusty, familiar, gentle giant. It had very clear and unmovable hierarchies, the nine to five schedule with weekends off, the occasional office party and the oversized retirement card everyone signed though very few knew who Bill was and what department he had worked in for the better part of his life.

Then the economy went south and as if that wasn’t enough, the millennials reached employment age. When they hit the workforce, they hit it hard. They were bold, brash, and confident, with very little regard for hierarchy. HR professionals suddenly found themselves facing skyrocketing turnover rates and outrageous demands for empowerment, flexible hours and immediate feedback. So when the concept of gamifying the workplace appeared it seemed like the perfect solution to motivate and engage these dynamic digital natives.

If we are to take a look at the term itself, gamification is, according to Wikipedia, just one of the 98 nouns derived with this particular suffix. There is such a thing as synonymification (now that could prove to be a challenge in a spelling contest) and under ‘G’ we also have Greenlandification – because apparently there are those who are trying to make things more… Greenlandish, I suppose.

Trivia aside and returning to our subject matter, gamification uses game mechanics in non-game environments. It takes a look at the elements of fun, interactivity and reward that make gaming so addictive and work out a way to apply them in education and work. Typically this involves items such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards and the possibility to level up. These come from game-like dynamics such as rewards, urgency, pride, competition, and status-building.

Gamification – a cross-generational affair

All these sound like something awfully dear and familiar to millennials, but could they actually hold some value – and power – for their colleagues of different generations? Because in reality the workforce is a cross-generational affair – mixing Gen Xers, Millennials and Baby Boomers.

The simple answer is yes. Of course there is an argument to be made about the digital side of gamification being more in the millennials’ wheelhouse. However, my great aunt Mia is somewhat of a Zuma pro, my recently retired mother is constantly inviting me to help in her quest to save pets on Facebook and parents of teenagers have to be pretty much up to date with technology if they ever want to know what’s (tw)eating their children.

Furthermore, games have not been invented by or for millennials. Monopoly is not new and neither is Activity. The workings of games are as universal as the excitement they produce. Now I am aware that all this sounds nice and seems to makes sense but since we are talking about business, a little science behind this theory can’t hurt. Luckily, somebody thought to carry out a study.

KPMG used a gamified tool to improve staff awareness of its service capabilities. The challenge was a classic one for this type of approach: the Australian branch had over 5000 staff working across 150 different service offerings in Australia, and it wanted to ensure that employees were aware of the many service capabilities the organization had, so they could connect them to KPMG clients.

What they initially discovered was that customary tools and resources — whether digitally available on the Intranet or actual manuals, pamphlets or hand-outs — were not engaging enough. Other methods of engaging employees with the services offer proved either too expensive or too time-costly so they resorted to some new-fashioned gamification. One of the goals was to create a scheme that would appeal to all employees, regardless of gender or seniority. The tool was structured as a Q&A game about the company’s capabilities, and good answers were translated into a faster progression of the employee’s avatar in a race.

One of the worries KPMG initially had was that junior employees – more likely to have had gaming experiences and obviously part of the millennials’ generation – would be the only ones to log into the learning game and play it.

In reality, usage was spread across roles and divisions. While junior users were more likely to login post the first game announcement (but not by much) the more senior employees were more likely to become power users — logging in more frequently and reaching higher levels in the game. The report concluded that

more mature individuals can be more responsive to gamification experiences than their younger peers

– the exact opposite of conventional wisdom.

Even with this modern approach, there proved to be a retention problem with the younger staff members: most failed to return after the first login. This was easily fixed by using notification mechanisms, reminding them through emails and in-app notifications of the need to login and re-engage with the game. In addition, 80% of employees, when surveyed, felt that “playing games” was a legitimate tool for training – deflecting the fear that employees may find the use of games offensive or inappropriate.

Another result was that “not only did a person’s gaming status have a negligible impact on their participation; it also didn’t influence the level of improvement in their awareness or level of enjoyment of the game”.

KPMG conclude the report by noting that “gamification techniques can be used to improve the awareness of a topic that people may otherwise not be particularly excited about”.

What I found to be particularly valuable in this study was that it proved gamification holds the power to engage the greatest part of the demographics. If properly designed, it reaches wide categories of staff and can turn even the dullest topic or task into something enjoyable and worthwhile.

Author: Roxana M

Roxana is a learning and development professional with over 10 years experience in corporate training.