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We recently completed a project that focused on identifying the strategic tactics that service delivery organizations (i.e., contact centers and service desks) were deploying to reduce turnover and improve retention rates. Throughout our research, it became clear that engaging and motivating employees by way of gamification was one of the more controversial trends. Now, we already knew from thousands of benchmarks and consulting engagements that gamification has not been as effective at reducing turnover as service delivery organizations had hoped. What we didn’t know was the why and, seeing as how gamification was clearly a retention trend, albeit a controversial one – appearing in everything from recruitment, to onboarding, to training, to performance improvement initiatives – we did a deeper dive on the topic.

What we found were some common pitfalls that were impacting the success of gamification in service delivery organizations. For those that aren’t familiar with the concept, gamification is simply the introduction of games or game-like elements in the workplace – leaderboards, badges, achievements, scoring, points, rewards, etc. Sounds like fun, right? Well, not everyone feels that way thanks to a growing chasm between theory and practice.

Humans are competitive by nature. We long to do things that promise some level of fulfillment or allow us to demonstrate forward progress. As a result, gamification, in theory, should cause a surge in morale, engagement, job satisfaction, and retention rates. So why are the results from organizations that have implemented gamification such a mixed bag of torment and triumph?

Let’s start by analyzing the triumph. Robert Baden-Powell said “The best workers, like the happiest livers, look upon their work as a kind of game: the harder they play the more enjoyable it becomes.” Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by defining some common personality types that you will likely encounter when walking the floor of any contact center or service desk.

The pathfinders are gamers by default. They pour their hearts, minds, and souls into every aspect of the day. They are the lifelong learners. They are the spirited and motivated. They don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles to tell them when they’re making forward progress because they know what it feels like to improve. They compete, not with others, but with themselves. Striving each and every day to demonstrate that today, they are better at something than they were yesterday.

Then there are the wanderers. These are the people without a clear aim or purpose. They are the perpetual job hoppers. They are the disengaged and distant. They lack interest and inspiration and no amount of gamification is going to change that.

Somewhere in between these two polarizing personalities are the settlers. The settlers are content, satisfied, and inherently happy. They aren’t overly driven or ambitious because they’ve simply accepted their role in the workplace. They’re happy with what they have, who they are, and they are not going to go out of their way to do things differently.

There are of course those that do not fall neatly into the three categories as I’ve described them, but simply understanding the extreme variations can be enormously powerful. Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Your team is made up of a combination of pathfinders, settlers, and wanderers, and it’s your job Mr. or Mrs. Supervisor, Manager, Director, CEO to architect a high performing, championship team environment that leverages each group’s unique traits in the most efficient way possible. A contact center or service desk can perform exceptionally well with a complex mix of personalities because the pathfinders’ exceptional performance will almost always overshadow the settlers’ mediocrity and tame the wanderers’ reckless disregard.

Now for the torment. Most service delivery organizations fail to recognize three common pitfalls when implementing games and game like elements in the workplace. This causes many gamification initiatives to fail – sometimes miserably. Moreover, these failed initiatives can result in a dramatic decline in morale and a substantial increase in absenteeism and turnover.

First, understand that gamification is not a one size fits all solution. Empathy for and understanding of the ‘players’ will ensure an effective and successful gamification initiative. It’s also worth pointing out that some employees simply respond better to a gamified culture than others. In general, the older generations tend to be more resistant to gamification, while the younger generations tend to embrace it. It’s a good idea to involve a small focus group consisting of those that will actually be participating in the gamification program when formalizing the strategy and designing the gamified environment.

Secondly, it’s imperative to track and analyze results regularly. Implementing gamification and assuming that it is working according to plan is a recipe for disaster. In addition to analyzing the reports coming out of your gamification tool, consider scheduling frequent check-ins with both the original focus group and others outside the focus group about their experience and overall job satisfaction.

Finally, recognize that gamification should be deployed in moderation. Game induced stress is a significant problem, even for those that typically thrive in a competitive environment. As an example, in 2008, Disneyland Resort Hotel in Anaheim, CA gamified their laundry workers’ responsibilities with a real time tracking system. Employees began to feel as though they couldn’t stop working, not even for trips to the restroom. It was a detriment to their physical and mental well-being.

To ensure you don’t end up a case study example like this, it’s important to consider what % of an employee’s daily work will be accompanied by gamified elements. A good cap is approximately 20% of their day. This ensures that they won’t experience burnout and minimizes the risk of game induced stress. Additionally, it’s a good idea to roll out the entire gamification initiative in phases.

The simple fact is this, gamification has the potential to reduce turnover, improve retention, and boost employee engagement. However, there are common pitfalls that should be avoided when implementing gamification in a contact center or technical support service desk. It’s my hope that the suggestions in this article are helpful as you work to formalize and mindfully deploy any new gamification program.

Angela Irizarry

Angela Irizarry is the President and Chief Operating Officer at MetricNet, where she is responsible for managing day-to-day operations, strategic planning, and new client acquisition. She also oversees the company's sales and marketing efforts and manages its intellectual property and online resources. Angela has been with the company for 10 years and has over 20 years of experience in business development and strategy. She has been featured in Fortune magazine and has received recognition for her work in competitive and trends analysis from executives at a variety of Fortune 100 companies. Angela is a dynamic and accomplished professional who consistently delivers exceptional results for MetricNet and its clients. She has a wealth of industry experience and a track record of success in driving business results, particularly in the financial services, insurance, and healthcare sectors. Angela is highly skilled in communication, problem-solving, and project management, and is committed to delivering the highest level of service to MetricNet's clients.

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