By Emily Senkosky
Freelance Journalist & Communications Coordinator, Almas Insight
Leaders across industries are looking for a silver bullet to help bring harmony back to the workplace. As businesses undergo significant transformations — technologically, culturally and economically — organizations are being challenged to sift through the promises of progress and the track record of established wisdom in order to try and find a balance again.
With advanced technologies being adopted at unforeseen speeds, roles evolving rapidly and expectations changing every day, a huge disconnect between workers and employers has emerged. For businesses to reconnect with their most important asset, their employees, fundamental challenges must be addressed. Although this sounds like an oversimplified diagnosis, maybe the solution is too and has been right in front of our noses the whole time — just in a more “playful” and slightly less “professional” context than we expected it to be.
A new study by professional services firm KPMG shows that gamified training done right and tested rigorously can significantly improve employee performance, increase engagement and broaden skill sets in the workplace. In the study, lessons were conducted carefully over the course of 29 months, incorporating elements such as progression through challenges and levels, instant feedback, points and competition, and increased performance metrics across the board.
The study included client-facing employees in 24 offices, and over the course of the two years it was shown that gamified training increased fees collected by participating offices by more than 25%. Additionally, the number of clients for these participants rose by up to 16%, and opportunities from new clients rose by as much as 22% — showcasing how much fun and games can augment a workplace’s success.
Clearly, there are some uncharted levels for business leaders to unlock in gaming applications, so let’s explore the top three ways gamified methods can create evergreen value in 2023’s work world.
Engagement, the Key to Productivity
Gallup found that less than one-third (32%) of U.S. employees overall were engaged in 2022 — a dismal percentage for leaders. The poll found that there was a multitude of “why” factors that played into this, but with the majority of people detached from their job, it’s clear that engagement is one of the principal cracks in the foundation of the modern workplace.
This could have something to do with the fact that many work interactions are now routed to a screen — making the art of engagement an entirely different ball game. But technology is now an irreplaceable component of the modern business landscape, and despite its challenges, there are avenues to wield it positively and productively. Gamified experiences are one bright example of how this can be achieved, showing great potential as a solution for employee engagement in the digital work world.
“Increasingly we are seeing organizations look to new technologies to create more engaging learning experiences that create the opportunity to learn in the flow of work, practice new skills and apply skills in a simulated real-world environment,” said Deloitte Principal and Lead for Workforce Development Practice Michael Griffiths. “By leveraging spatial computing, AI or Web3, learning organizations are replicating on-the-job experiences in a virtual safe space. The data tells us that these gamified experiences both create a sense of belonging and build a sort of muscle memory that drives retention.”
As professional exchanges become more online, a gaming format provides a way for organizations to play into the hand they are already being dealt. The immersive format and competitive nature that comes with gaming make it so interactions can not only be stimulating, but engaging, motivating and productivity-driving as well.
“When your mind is 100% focused on the screen’s task, new pathways to engagement are unlocked,” says AJ Redmer, a leader in game design for over 25 years, building some of the most well-known video game franchises in the entertainment industry, such as SIMs. “This creates what is known as suspension of disbelief, which is when the user is temporarily acting as the character performing in the game — making it so decision-making goes deeper and the person is making choices as themselves in real-time.”
The technical definition of suspension of disbelief, according to Oxford, is the concept where audiences become emotionally involved in a narrative, and react as if the characters are real and the events are happening now, even though they know it is “only a story.” This phenomenon checks out for gamulations, or simulations in a gaming context. Gamulations have been shown to improve user engagement by eliciting real, strong emotions — making them an extremely powerful tool for engagement.
In a gaming experience, employees interact and are given immediate feedback on their performance — directing them to the following stages and toward new accomplishments.
Because of this, gaming can be a technique for influencing and encouraging behavior, boosting employee engagement at work, and leading to improved performance, skill development and skill sets.
“I think we have about two decades worth of innovation that still needs to be implemented and could transform the way every global organization is run,” says Almas Insight Co-Founder Brayden Olson, a company with a gamified approach to workforce management. “In game-based learning, innovation has the potential to dramatically reduce racial, social, economic and gender bias by helping the right people get to the right positions based on their capability — and nothing else.”
Gaming can open up new contextual narratives that inspire employees to be involved in their own long-term learning — helping them find purpose in their work and take control of their own career growth opportunities. With a sense of purposeful work as the number one driver of productivity for workers, this pays off in spades for companies.
Shaping an Intentional Workplace Reality
Workforce management has been throttled since the commencement of the pandemic, with managers struggling to find an equilibrium between workers’ evolving expectations and performance pressure from senior leaders.
To date, workforce management has been rigidly focused on individual measurement through methods such as personality tests, development reports or workshops. But recently, organizations have realized that this is a limited view, and have started to analyze large data sets to help understand the correlations across their entire ecosystem.
This perspective takes a look at the bigger picture, drawing patterns on the exchanges between different roles and departments and what results from these trends. With the nature of a game to “play with others,” gamulations have great potential in assessing and tracking performance through a wider organizational lens while still motivating workers to participate through a fun and immersive experience.
“When a gaming platform is accessible to every person in an organization, individuals across departments can play, exchange and learn from one another,” emphasized game designer Redmer. “You can create simulations to train people on specific tasks and in ways that relate to other players and the surrounding environment. Most importantly, gaming methods measure people on a level scale, something that is extremely important in business applications.”
In an intentionally designed virtual world, leaders can connect teams across organizational silos, develop internal hubs for micro-learning and create forums to share ideas. Through healthy competition, games can drive interactions that might not have occurred otherwise, and can also help employees to challenge themselves in new ways. Finally, with objectives woven into a gaming format, leaders can inspire workers to broaden their skill development, but in a way that motivates and engages them.
One use case frames this up nicely. AJ’s company Redmer Productions launched a project in 2019, in collaboration with the University of Washington Foster School of Business, aimed at young entrepreneurs. The gamulation is structured to simulate the real challenges that a founder would face when starting a new company by putting students in the executive chair and getting them to actually participate in the success of their business — albeit in the virtual world.
In the simulation, students establish their businesses in the game based on real-world criteria, including things such as industry, geographical location, product-market value, etc., and then as they grow their business, they navigate pertinent challenges. Hinged on their choices, numerous different trajectories can follow. As they guide the business through its four stages of development — pre-revenue, early revenue, the valley of death and sustainable business — their actions impact the company’s financial situation as well as the satisfaction levels of their clients, staff and various stakeholders. Throughout the game’s narrative, students are awarded points based on their performance and then receive an evaluation report at the end based on these points.
Gartner’s research shows that to successfully create intentional interactions among employees, employers should focus on three elements: employee choice and autonomy, a clear structure and purpose, and a sense of levity and fun — the very trifecta of components that a well-designed game can provide.
Leveling Up Human Capabilities
A final fundamental challenge for companies in 2023 has been the uphill climb of shaking off the antiquated recruitment methods of yester-year and moving toward skills-based hiring and development. The crux of this struggle is the fact that, to date, human capabilities have been hard to measure, track and foster.
“I think most leaders intellectually realize that ‘soft skills’ or capabilities are the single most critical piece of data in workforce management. SHRM research has shown that 89% of failed hires are due to these kinds of mismatches,” said Olson. “You can’t properly hire, retain, develop or promote what you can’t see. What most people don’t realize is that in the last few years, technologies in measuring these critical abilities have become reliable, available and economically feasible.”
Games tap into our innate human curiosity. We want to figure out how to play, and once we figure out how to play, we want to figure out how to win. In fact, researcher Jane McGonigal discovered when individuals engage in gameplay, they become more collaborative, adaptable and confident in taking on challenges. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, being confident and agile is a huge advantage for both employees and employers.
Getting to practice potential real-world scenarios in the safety of a game-based context can be an incubator for appraising the unique aspects that an employee contributes while also helping them develop skills they could improve on. Statistics show that 74% of workers want to acquire new skills to stay employable, but a similar amount indicate that they feel a lack of development opportunities in their workplaces. This shows that it’s time for companies to step up and put some thought into their training methods.
“Learning professionals must be more intentional about the things we design into the workplace, considering how different audiences will experience these programs not just in the flow of work, but in life,” says Griffiths. “At Deloitte, we have been using persona-based techniques (such as games) for several years to understand learners more deeply and what is likely to be most successful in getting through to them. To succeed in this landscape, companies will need to rethink their own ways of working and the skills and capabilities they need within their workforce ecosystem.”
The highly contextual format of gaming is a huge advantage to employers looking to level up their organizational learning. With a focus on broadening skill development, businesses can use a gaming format to support workforce development that is human-centered and ultimately increases talent velocity. Additionally, companies can utilize the customizable nature of gamification to hand-pick talent components that define a company’s goals for workers across the company, or even in specific departments. Last but certainly not least is the DEI component of conducting assessments in a virtual world. Through the portal of a game, businesses can measure talents without introducing prejudice or taking favorites.
“There is no doubt that modern methods — including gaming, immersive learning, AI and other technology advances — will be a requirement for the future landscape of learning transformations and leadership development,” said Griffiths.
Simulating, and Generating, a Better Future of Work
Amongst the shaky ground of 2023’s work world, individuals of every professional shape and size are looking for a handhold to better understand their “role” in the great transformation.
Through a bit of simulated role-play, gamification can offer a solution by generating new and captivating ways to engage employees while still helping leaders evaluate them in an equitable manner. Gamulations can enable users to learn more in shorter amounts of time, enhance their retention, increase company-wide knowledge transfer and accelerate upskilling — all while broadly supporting desirable capabilities in the workplace.
In the long run, the people-centric data that is gleaned from gaming can assist leaders in understanding how to hire, manage and retain their workers more successfully and effectively. This will help to create a future where organizations emphasize the transformative potential of human behavior data and put the right candidates in the right places at the right times.
Emily Senkosky is both a freelance journalist and the communications coordinator for Almas Insight. In her writing, Emily covers topics on everything from business to technology to environmental justice. She has been published on Business Insider, Forbes Centroamerica, Entrepreneur Europe and Español, Mongabay, among other outlets. She holds an undergraduate degree from Westminster College in Salt Lake City and starts her masters in journalism at the University of Montana in Fall 2023.