Chief Executive: Game, Change

UNITED NATURAL FOODS HAD A secret weapon in its $2.9 billion acquisition of SuperValu last year: a mobile game app. The contest asked SuperValu workers multiple-choice questions about their new employer, such as, “About how many new items per month is UNFI first to market with?” Four options ranged from 500-to 10,000.

The correct answer was 1,000. Those who answered questions correctl7y most often won points toward gift cards, and UNFI got better informed new workers.

“Setting up an enviro9nment of competing against others fuels the desire of employees to go out and learn, “says Jeremy Ford, vice president of people and change for Providence, Rhode Island-based distributor. “A lot of it is just doing things in a novel and different way that they haven’t seen before.”

There’s a difference between making work fun and making a game out of work. Fun is “Bring Your Pet to the Office Day” and factory-wide ping pong tournaments. “Gamifying” work is integrating elements of play, competition, and digital technology directly into jobs to engage employees, communicate effectively and save time and money, or all the above.

It can turn information conveyance into a quiz with leaderboards and prizes. It can be a software hackathon. It can be applying virtual reality simulation to any training. And it can be wargaming how to operate a new product, or how to run a making tool that makes a new product.

By any definition, gamification is hot. “Sometimes things can get mundane,” says Martin Woll, chief operating officer of AXA, a New York City-based insurer that uses an online gamification platform to motivate internal wholesalers and runs their individual sales results leaderboard ticker style across all the computer monitors in the office. “Gamification reinvigorates the competitive spirit and individuals competing because it’s fun. They can even trash talk.”

Catherine Monson agrees. “This is the best, coolest way to deliver training and increase retention,” says the CEO of FastSigns International, a Carrollton, Texas-based franchisor of custom graphics stores that uses three-minute quizzes on mobile apps to get employees to remember the important stuff. “And that’s what we as CEOs want to do.”

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon leverages what Harry Buhl, lead investigator for synthetic training, calls the gaming savvy of this generation of military recruits by gamifying soldiers training on weapons ranging from helicopters to its Patriot air and missile defense system, making them operate very much like popular video games.

Rockwell Automation essentially bought a company just for gamification. Last year, the Milwaukee-based industrial giant acquired Emulate3D, a UK-based concern whose software enables customers to virtually test machine and system designs before incurring manufacturing and automation costs and committing to a final design.

There are some critics of corporate gamification. “The practice has the potential to degrade meaningful and fulfilling work and vital co-worker connections,” says Reid Blackman, a corporate culture consultant. “It can be viewed as an attempt to squeeze greater efficiency out of workers in a thoughtless way.”

CEOs who’ve gotten gaming to work offer these tips on getting it right:

Facilitate training: FastSigns is rolling out a gamification platform across various functions after successfully using it with outside salespeople. Now it’s using games to onboard new franchisees, with quizzes around tough to teach topics such as product knowledge and advice for signing a real estate lease.

“In three to five minutes, they learn something,” Monson says. “All of this information has been in a 60-page booklet that we send new franchisees. Twenty years ago, people read the booklet; Today, they don’t.”

Encourage Information retention: Just like in school, employees pay more attention if they know they’re going to be quizzed on something.

“You spend $20,000 on a speaker, and he might make six great points that you want people to understand, but people are checking their phones and email as they listen,” Monson says. “So we create a game out of questions about the key points. People want to get the highest score.”

Use it for recruiting: In a recent survey by TalentLMS, 78 percent of respondents said that gamification in the recruiting process would make a company more desirable. There’s even a moniker for it: “recruitainment.”

Rockwell, for instance, in December host3ed a hackathon it called 24toCode, with a $10,000 grand prize aimed at recruiting software writers. “We were leveraging the comfort of new generations with digital technologies and evaluating their performance and seeing how well they might be able to do for our company,” says Dave Fasko, Rockwell’s director of advanced technology.

Show them the money: Workers tend to value monetary prizes most. “Point systems and virtual rewards and the like aren’t what people want,” says John McKnight, a professor at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, in Pennsylvania. “They would rather have actual bonuses.”

Equivalents such as trips, gift cards, and iPads also appeal. And employers shouldn’t sweat the outlays. “There’s not a big financial investment required to drive these games,” says Brian Hamilton, vice president of Ramsey Solutions, a Nashville-based provider of financial literacy programs. “Do a $25 gift card giveaway each day, and it’s only $700 over a month.”

Update continuously: Players want to know where they stand at the moment, not just periodically. “It’s important to give people real-time updating of their standing on the leaderboard because then they know if they stay an extra hour or come in earlier, they can beat the competition,” Woll says. “And that’s good for us because it helps motivate them.

Outsource the tasks: Turnkey providers such as 1Huddle and Mivation will take any pile of corporate information, create quizzes out of it, maintain scoring and help clients communicate with players. “We enable you to set up competitions on any metric you can track,” says Seth Preus, senior adviser of Spokane, Washington-based Mivation.

Do it yourself: While he likes the concept of gamification, CEO Scott Moorehead decided that Round Room, a smartphone retailer based in Carmel, Indiana, would do its own. “It’s easy to do in Excel and cheaper,” he says.

United Natural Foods wanted to create a game-like video for the orientation of distribution center workers but saved tens of thousands of dollars by creating its own instead of outsourcing the project, strapping a VR camera on a drone and then to a box making its way through the warehouse.

Beware of ho-hum reaction: While much gamification leverages consumers’ recent experiences with gamification by brands and the interest of younger workers in digital games, those advantages may disappear with Generation Z. “They’ve grown up with them so they’re very savvy customers of online games and consumer apps,” McKnight warns. “They’re on to all the techniques, and many see them as phone and manipulative.  

Take an ethical approach: Blackman worries that gamification can “harm a company’s overall people strategy” by “breeding a lot of unhealthy competition among employees.” For example, he says, “If the game looks like it’s supposed to be fun and about points, but it actually has an effect on your bonus or promotion, then you’re playing the game for the wrong reasons.”

Don’t use it as a crutch: “Gamification shouldn’t try to compensate for work that isn’t interesting per se,” Blackman argues. “Ideally, what people want is intrinsically motivating work,” he says. “Gamifying it may just tell workers that their work isn’t intrinsically interesting.”