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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, late-August, 2022

Where’s the fun?

Work isn’t supposed to be “fun”. It’s serious, hard, challenging, and absorbing. Children have fun. Grownups engage in intellectual stimulation, meaning and purpose.

There is no room for “fun” in today’s workplace.

Yet the capacity for fun, and our energy, creativity and feelings of psychological safety all go hand in hand.

Directed, creative play is a catalyst for idea generation, breaking impasses, overcome challenges and creating a bonded, high-functioning team that is confident enough to experiment and fail-to-learn safely[i]. Even low-tech board games can enhance creativity, innovation and strengthen a team’s problem-solving abilities[ii].

Gamification has been studied seriously in the workplace for more than two decades. We know that it works for training, skill-building, awareness, problem solving and engagement, but is also proven to enhance performance and make mundane, repetitive tasks more enjoyable[iii].

Tapping into the power of gamification at work requires a shift in mindset. It’s also about building in gaming elements, the foundations, structure and design in pursuit of a particular learning goal[iv].

Setting the stage

What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Consider the various models that might fit the budget, time constraints, forum, platform, goals and expectations.

Gamification begins with the creation of a safe “playground” to practice skills, execute new strategies and test theories. Then we weave one or two gaming elements that triggers our need for light competition and gives us permission to take a few risks[v].

Most games have at least one of these elements in common.

The “other world”
Gamers enter a parallel, fictional place that mirrors recognizable workplace scenarios. They leave behind their current roles, status, tasks and even personalities. What happens in this world does not affect the real world, making it a safe space to take more risks and try new approaches.

Design and visuals are an essential part of making the gaming world convincing. From graphical avatars, scenery, tools and movement, artwork supports the suspension of disbelief and allows players to lose themselves for the best experience.

The Story
The story is the means by which players are drawn into this parallel world. Weaving in choice, magic and a bit of silliness along a cohesive narrative pulls gamers through the scenario and makes goals real. Gamers become emotionally invested in the result; this is because we care about people, real or fictional, and about achieving a good result.

The Mission
Games all have a challenge with a clear objective. Some are fast-moving ideation while others burn slowly, require logic, pattern or sequence recognition or creative brainstorming. A problem is presented to the players with a time limit ranging from a few minutes to weeks or even months. The human mind thrives in this environment; simple, effective, and all levels of the organization can participate.

The Board
The board is a publicly visible list of names and scores of top-ranking players. This creates a competitive environment, which works when the atmosphere is light and fun when the stakes aren’t too high. Teams or individuals can appear on the list.

The Reward
Whether real or simulated, prizes for winners are essential motivators. The best rewards are small, humorous, and low-value. Such as a box of chocolates, a wooden spoon, a gift card or bottle of wine delivered to the house. Prizes that are too high-value, such as a bonus, promotion or training program might cause resentment or friction within the team.

The ability to level up keeps us in the zone and holds our attention. Games that are too hard or too easy are boring, but levels put as many players as possible into their own personal “Goldilocks” range.

Badges are visual signs of success that gamers accrue as they gain proficiency. Collecting them can be for their own sake or they can represent new powers, protections, abilities or authorizations.


Where can gamification be used? Turns out, nearly everywhere.

  • Learning and development: embedded in training or onboarding programs
  • Customer support: helping customers more efficiently and with better results
  • Innovation: ideation for new products, processes or projects
  • Sales: improving collaboration between salespeople, motivation
  • Engagement: rewarding volunteerism for non-essential tasks, devoting time and energy to the community
  • Marketing: sharing on social media, outreach, employee brand advocacy
  • HR acquisition: recruitment, social outreach
  • Supply chain efficiency and innovation: finding better or alternative routes
  • Performance reviews: measuring improvement individual against himself
  • Leadership skill development: peer appreciation, sandboxing
  • Product development: new line competitions
  • Creative solutions: new logos, taglines, mission, illustrations, initiatives
  • Culture: new projects, initiatives and programs

Gaming at work should be voluntary, or encouraged; requiring participation actually decreases engagement[vi]. Improvement should be relative to the individual player or team, rather than against an abstract baseline or predetermined set of standards. Feedback for performance should be immediate and allow the player to advance, ready for the next level or next problem to solve[vii].

Gamification is 90% about psychology and 10% technology[viii]. It works because it taps into a player’s emotions and leverages our basic human need to be competent, autonomous and connected[ix].

[i] Kinder, Tony & Stenvall, Jari & Memon, Ally (2018). “Play at work, learning and innovation”. Public Management Review. 21. 1-24. 10.1080/14719037.2018.1487578. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326275176_Play_at_work_learning_and_innovation

[ii] Parjanen, S., & Hyypiä, M. (2019). Innotin game supporting collective creativity in innovation activities. Journal of Business Research96, 26-34. Accessed on April 9, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S014829631830537X

[iii] Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J. H., McCarthy, I., & Pitt, L. (2016). “Game on: Engaging customers and employees through gamification”. Business horizons, 59(1), 29-36. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/download/40666331/2015_b_Game_On_BH.pdf

[iv] Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “gamification.” In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments (pp. 9–15). Accessed January 24, 2022.  https://doi.org/10.1145/2181037.2181040

[v] Chishti (2020). “Gamification Marketing For Dummies”. For Dummies Publishing. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://www.dummies.com/article/business-careers-money/business/marketing/gamification-models-274031

[vi] Nelson (2015). “Gamification: Playing Your Way to Better Employee Engagement”. HPPY: The HR & Employee Engagement Community Website. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://gethppy.com/talent-management/gamification-better-employee-engagement

[vii] Diaz (2021) “Gamification to Increase Engagement”, Published on LinkedIn. Accessed January 23, 2022. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/gamification-increase-engagement-isaac-diaz/

[viii] Zichermann (2011) “Gamification: 75% Psychology, 25% Technology: how to make applications addictive”. InformationWeek. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://www.informationweek.com/government/gamification-75-psychology-25-technology

[ix] Kavaliova, M., Virjee, F., Maehle, N., & Kleppe, I. A. (2016). “Crowdsourcing innovation and product development: Gamification as a motivational driver.” Cogent Business & Management3(1), 1128132. Accessed January 24, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/289535433_Crowdsourcing_innovation_and_product_development_Gamification_as_a_motivational_driver