Using game mechanics in the workplace is an innovative way to recognize and reward employees

Money can’t buy you love, but can it buy you happiness? The answer, according to a September 2010 research paper by two Princeton University professors is… sort of. Based on data collected from 450,000 responses, the researchers found that happiness flatlines at $75,000, meaning once an income of $75,000 is achieved, emotional well-being is no longer dependent on money.

All this happy babble is not balderdash. It’s critical information for employers, supervisors and HR professionals because a happy employee is a productive employee.

Jessica Pryce-Jones is the author of Happiness at Work and the CEO of iOpener, a UK-based human asset management consultancy that leverages the science of happiness at work. The least happy workers, says Pryce-Jones, spend 40 per cent of their week doing what they're there to do, compared with happy workers, who spend 80 per cent of their week on work-related tasks.

Although companies that pay $75,000 (or more) are at an ROI advantage over those that don’t, every organization—big or small, charitable or for profit, sales or service—is capable of improving their happiness scores.

Go Fish
Gabe Zichermann says it’s all fun and games. Zichermann, a native of Toronto who now lives in New York City, is an author, speaker and expert in gamification.

Game-a-what? Sure, you might be asking what it is now, but you won’t for long. Gamification takes the basic elements that make games fun and engaging and applies them to all arenas—including work.

It might sound unorthodox, perhaps even inane. Zichermann assures us that it’s neither. “Gamification has been around in various forms for a long time with leaderboards, frequent flyer points, challenges and rewards,” he explains. But there’s long been an inherent disconnect with traditional gamification. “It’s flat. Money and prizes are short-term driven and they lack finesse.”

And it doesn’t jibe with what truly makes us happy. According to Tony Hsieh, author of Delivering Happiness and CEO of, the world’s largest and most successful online shoe and clothing company with US$500 million in revenue, happiness rests on four basic pillars:
1. Perceived progress 
2. Perceived control 
3. Connectedness (the number and depths of relationships) 
4. Being part of something bigger than oneself

Check Mate
So what exactly does the Gen Y Zichermann suggest? Video games. That’s right: Rock Band (a music-based video game where players create and perform music together, regardless of experience) and World of Warcraft (players assume roles of heroic fantasy characters and explore a virtual world of mystery, magic and adventure).

Wait! Don’t hit the “power off” button until you re-read Hsieh’s four pillars of happiness. And consider this: video games are multi-layered and complex, just like humans. Plus, they have built-in rewards and recognition; they engage players and motivate them to try harder. And they work.

Proof: Byron Reeves, Ph.D. teaches at Stanford University and is the author of Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. Reeves is also the co-founder of Seriosity Inc., which, according to their website (, helps companies “improve collaboration, innovation, productivity and engagement through the psychological and economic principles that drive successful multiplayer online games.”

Proof: According to a 2010 study by the University of Colorado in Denver, video games are useful for training employees. Trainees who used video games had a nine per cent higher retention rate, an 11 per cent higher factual knowledge level and a 14 per cent higher skill-based knowledge level.

Proof: As far back as 2008, the U.S. army has used multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft to weed out potential leaders; if a recruit shows leadership skills in a virtual portal, they will do so in the real world and a unit needs strong leaders to survive.

Admittedly, video games in the purist form may be a hard pill for some organizations to swallow. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Online Rewards + Recognition
Rypple, a web-based software company from Toronto, has created an online portal with similar collaboration features as Facebook and LinkedIn where employees and employers say thanks, give recognition, stay on track and meet goals. The immediacy of the feedback makes it more meaningful and the game mechanics, like customized badges, make it more fun.

Who: AutoReturn has been using Rypple since the fall of 2010. AutoReturn is a towing management company that coordinates the transportation, storage and return of towed vehicles. Approximately 65 employees spread across two U.S. states and a collection of offices and warehouses. CEO John Wicker wanted to create a more regular, immediate feedback system to help bridge the logistical gap and open up the lines of communication.

Why: Wicker knows that positive culture organizations outperform others. He wanted to create a platform for positivity.

How: The critical path in the average workday involves focusing on problems rather than recognizing positive outcomes. “We decided that we’d have a 5:1 ratio, five positive remarks to every one issue,” says Wicker. “Rypple provided the tool to do this without calling a meeting for each good effort.”

Result: “We hang a monitor in our service centre that runs stats on one side and Rypple on the other. The chatter level is high and it’s having a positive impact with the quality of service on the whole.” Although Wicker can’t quantify positivity, it’s in the air. “You can feel it,” he says. “People are more engaged.”

Grassroots Rewards + Recognition
Greg Greunke’s local Home Depot painted a football field on a leaderboard and hung it on the wall behind the checkout where it’s visible to customers and employees alike. The heading, handwritten in thick black marker, reads, “Tackling Customer Service FIRST.” Employees are awarded points for good customer service, and the more points they get, the further along the field they progress. “Anyone can become number one,” says Greunke, “because the goal is for everyone to reach the end zone.”

Who: Greg Greunke, president, Greunke, a California-based company specializing in loyalty, sales and incentive programs and creator of, a virtual meeting place to discuss strategies around recognition and rewards, with special emphasis on gamification. Greunke also volunteers as a director of U.S.-based Incentive Marketing Association. 

Why: Home Depot’s hand-drawn leaderboard caught Greunke’s attention because it’s gamification in its most basic form. It upholds the same principles as slick video games without the consoles and keys: it’s a shared portal that’s colourful and visual, with the purpose of engaging and influencing behaviour.

How: Whether it’s Rock Band, Rypple or jury-rigged, you can gamify recognition and rewards, ultimately boosting the level of happiness in your worklplace. Here’s how to roll it out:
Indentify your goal(s) e.g.: increase sales
1. Be true to your demographic (company culture, geography)
2. Create game mechanics that engage and inspire: challenges, points, badges, levels
3. Develop a format that encourages communication
4. Make it trackable
5. Provide tangible rewards for achieving goals (see number one above).

The Odds
* 45% of Canadians age 55+ play video games a few days per week
* 62% of Canadian Gamers are male, 38% female
(Entertainment Software Association of Canada)

The happiest employees are 180% more energized than their less content colleagues, 155% happier with their jobs, 150% happier with life, 108% more engaged and 50% more motivated. They take 66% less sick leave than those who are least happy and are 50% more productive too. 
(Jessica Pryce-Jones, author of Happiness at Work and CEO of iOpener)

* 87% of employees say that working with a low performer has made them want to change jobs.
* 93% of employees say that working with a low performer has decreased their productivity.
(2009 Leadership IQ study)

Three noncash motivators: praise from immediate managers, leadership attention (for example, one-on-one conversations), and a chance to lead projects.
(McKinsey Quarterly survey,2009)

Four in five Canadian organizations surveyed by The Conference Board of Canada in 2010 offer employees incentives—such as variable pay, performance bonuses, and annual incentives—to motivate them to achieve performance goals. However, most organizations using these types of plans do not measure the effectiveness of their programs on organizational results, according to Making Short-Term Incentives Work for Your Organization.

By Sherryll Sobie

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