The use of game-like structures in HR functions has proved popular for the past few years, but has it now had its day? Edmund Tirbutt reports
There’s nothing frivolous about the work carried out by HR, but during the past decade, the use of gamification – applying the principles that attract people to recreational games to raise employee participation and engagement levels – has been increasingly popular.
The term can apply to everything from conspicuous use of leaderboards and point systems to more subtle storytelling. At one extreme is actual game-based learning, at the other is something as mundane as a progress bar when filling in an online form.
Read more: Gamification in HR: Hit or miss?
Widespread software availability makes gamification accessible to companies of all sizes, but it is clearly more popular with larger ones.
HR transformation consultancy LACE Partners considers elements of the approach in every major transformation it does, and at least 50% of PwC’s clients use gamification of some sort in their HR function. But Rebox HR director Natalie Ellis – who only works with organisations with up to 250 employees – uses it for just three of around 100 UK clients.
Significant usage is made in learning and development (L&D) and virtually all learning management systems now have the ability to include it.
Nic Girvan, director of learning and delivery at training consultancy PDT Global, says: “Gamification is the popular way of making L&D more interesting, and has been gaining momentum in the last three years.
“It could be as simple as having mandatory training as short text questions answered on a phone or it could be a game involving points based on knowledge collecting.”
Winning, as with all gamification, tends to have more to do with employees gaining kudos and bragging rights than with financial rewards, although iPads, vouchers and small cash sums do sometimes feature as prizes.
Ed Sparkes, director of LACE Partners, says: “There could be an icon on your internal profile page proclaiming you to be a ‘guru’, or it could be that the CEO gets a list and you get recognition and exposure at senior level.”
“Gamification can create a fairer and faster recruitment process”
Gamification can also help create a fairer and faster recruitment process and a more engaging candidate journey.
The behaviour-based assessment (BBA) introduced by RSA in July 2022 has revolutionised its hiring process, redefining the candidate experience by using gamification as soon as they have submitted their CV to determine their suitability as a colleague.
A revised process using BBA has since replaced the insurer’s pre-existing phone screen interview. Instead, all applicants are invited to take part in a gamified assessment that focuses on understanding their personality preferences and behavioural fit for the organisation.
At Davies Group, learning experience director Craig Hamill says: “Candidates often talk to other candidates about good experiences, and gamification can help recruiters evaluate candidates and help them get a consistent message across.
“We make significant use of it both internally and for clients for pre-boarding, where it can create a sense of community by showcasing what’s available before people start.”
Other areas of HR
For employee benefits, gamification is being used to make pensions more interesting by enabling employees to access a range of retirement planning tools, and to increase take up of health and wellness related benefits.
The likes of Vitality and YuLife offer employees points – which can earn rewards – for carrying out activities like going to the gym, walking, cycling or buying healthy food.
Debra Clark, head of wellbeing at Towergate Health and Protection, says: “Some companies are also trying out gamification for mental health resilience training, enabling employees to test their responses to situations in a safe environment.
“For line managers, this can be considering employee issues in a virtual world. As they improve in dealing with different scenarios, they progress up a level and the issues get harder.”
Additionally, gamification can drive change adoption in large-scale technological deployments in HR. PwC has done this internally as well as for clients.
Prasun Shah, partner at PwC, says: “A game could have employees buddied up and given a task. It could be very straightforward, like updating address details in a new system, and you could have different teams competing against each other using steps that need to be gone through.”
Usage can also be aimed at boosting employee engagement generally. Amazon employees have the option of joining in fun and interactive workstation games, and Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser for data technology and AI at the CIPD, has heard of drivers being incentivised to compete on having the best telematics to encourage safe diving.
ROI and perception
Gamification providers and users can refer to impressive results. If two employees challenge each other to a walking duel via YuLife’s app then they both walk 35% more than they would do normally, and when someone uses the app to look at a company leaderboard, they will walk 25% more on average that day.
RSA reports that using its BBA has led to fewer withdrawals prior to interview, an increase in new starter engagement, a 50% decrease in time to hire, and a reduction in attrition rates for those with less than six months’ employment.
Nevertheless, most experts stress that gamification only constitutes one element of the HR toolkit, is not necessarily suitable for everyone, and has its downsides.
Colin Sloman, chief strategy officer at employee activation programme Cognition, says: “Gamification on its own is not the answer. It’s just one part of creating engagement for learners, and we use a range of techniques from behavioural science to gain attention to drive activation.
“In some cases, creating competition may not be appropriate to your culture, and if it’s not connected to a business change relevant to a company then gamification has little purpose.”
Commonly cited potential drawbacks are that including elements of a game can be perceived as trivial, that not all employees will necessarily engage and that some may find it dispiriting to do so.
Hayfa Mohdzaini says: “People might not feel it’s useful for them or they may worry that they will not do well. They may feel there’s no point in striving because the winners seem set in stone.”
Ed Sparkes says: “You can also spend quite a lot of money on a damp squib. For example, we used to run 30-day challenges but soon realised people were bored, so we reduced them to 10 days.”
Some commentators feel that the approach is past its peak and that the hype that so many in HR were keen to jump on has faded.
Gareth Jones, chief product officer at psychometric solutions provider Thomas International, says: “We’ve steered away from gamification because it’s been a bit of a fad. It was on everyone’s lips between 2012 and 2017, but is now dying off.
“Feedback from customers suggests there are concerns over the accuracy and quality of the psychology and research behind the tool.
“The market has been moving on to more real-time delivery of appropriate targeted outcomes in the line of work. Assessment data from gamification has a very short shelf life, so we are trying to come up with data with greater longevity, accuracy and relevance.”
But others are expecting gamification to continue to become more mainstream. Nic Girvan, who estimates that PDT Global currently uses it for under half of L&D clients, predicts that it will become part of most L&D courses in the next three years.
The fact that Gen Z, who are used to playing games on their phones, are set to increase as a proportion of the workforce could certainly act as a driver. So should the growth in AI. But the sheer pace at which AI is developing also makes forecasting three years ahead problematic.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.