How gamification is getting us moving in the workplace

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September 01, 2016

It’s a common sight in an office: rows of employees plugged into their desk space for hours at a time, fingers flying over keyboards as they concentrate on finishing reports and fielding calls.

Working for long periods without moving about isn’t great for productivity and it’s certainly not good for health. Fortunately, more companies are realizing this and more importantly, doing something about it.

In the City of London, a large investment bank rewards stair climbers with free fruit in its restaurants and coffee bars. And at an international media company stretching from Beijing to Moscow those who move most are entered into a weekly prize draw.

You might call it the Pokémon-ization of the office and at first it may sound a bit glib. But make no mistake, slowly but surely the science of behavioural economics and its most potent offspring ‘gamification’ is establishing itself in the workplace.

HR departments are using it to drive productivity. Property specialists are embracing it to create greener, more active buildings. And communications experts are increasingly seeing it as a way to bolster morale and engagement.

Done well, say proponents, and it can make difference between a great office and an average one.

Thinking about movement

Behavioural economics works on the basis that much – perhaps most – of our day-to-day behaviour is not thought about. We are guided in the mundane part of our daily lives – not by reason – but by our subconscious biases and an endless series of social and environmental prompts or nudges.

We do think and reason of course but we save it for the more difficult stuff – the decisions that really demand it. For example, preparing to give an important presentation will (hopefully) require a great deal of thought and reasoning. But how we get to that meeting in a familiar building – well that’s more than likely to be done on autopilot.

Driving behaviour change

There are ways to influence subconscious behaviour and encourage people to make changes in the workplace.

We are strongly influenced by what others do, so if the executive team is seen to be taking walking meetings others are more likely to follow. We seek to be consistent with our public promises – a pledge that is visible to others is more likely to be completed than one which is not – and we tend to be drawn to things that stand out. A well placed sign directing us to the stairs, for example, can be as effective as the ping of a lift arriving.

Many people are also fans of pre-set options and if those new sit/stand desks are set to the standing position when people first see them, people are more likely to stand than sit. And never underestimate the power of incentives. People like to maximise gains, but also importantly, to minimise loss and so games that involve the accumulation (and loss) of points/rewards are a powerful motivator.

At first glance you may think these points dull or obvious. But their power can be startling if deployed creatively.

Making movement fun

Consider the Pokémon Go craze. Normally computer gaming is associated with the worst sort of sedentary behaviour, not to mention poor lighting, pizza and fizzy drinks. But in the space of just a month, this app has got gamers moving in more than 30 countries in numbers seldom seen before.

Fitness tracking businesses such as Jawbone, MyFitnessPal and Apple have all reported sharp spikes in activity over the last month, with Jawbone estimating that users of the app were walking 62.5 percent more than normal.

Pokémon demonstrates the power of incentives – collecting virtual monsters. But there are other great examples.

Take, for example, the power of ‘salience’ – placing something prominently to attract attention. This is why the first thing you see when you log into your Facebook pages is the number of notifications you have waiting for you. Stepjockey and the Delos WELL Building standard use salience to drive stair use.

It has even been deployed in men’s toilets in the form of a fake fly strategically placed in the urinals. By causing men to better focus on where exactly they are ‘pointing’ it has reduced splashing in some of the world’s largest airports up to 80 percent. Cleaning costs have fallen sharply as a result.

So where to start with gamification in your workplace? The trick is to start with your business’s specific problems or its KPIs. It may be cutting carbon emissions, boosting staff resilience or improving customer service.

Whatever the challenge there is almost certainly a facet of behavioural economics and gamification that can help you tackle it.


Paul Nuki is a co-founder and CEO of StepJockey, a digital health business which uses gamification and behavioural economics to promote movement in the workplace.

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