How gamification can help engage Millennial employees

Gamification brings the principles and mechanics of gaming to the workplace—motivating employees by giving them incentives that mirror those in games.
By Eddie Huffman

With a generation of tech-savvy Millennials flooding the workforce, gamification has become a hot topic as a management tool. Gamification entails bringing the principles and mechanics of gaming to the workplace—motivating employees by giving them incentives that mirror those in games. 

Sometimes, gamification doesn't involve actual game play, but rather having employees receive game-like rewards, such as badges or points, for completing tasks and engaging with colleagues in healthy competition that can foster team building. Potential applications in accounting firms include rewards for meeting monthly reporting deadlines, professional development goals, and health and wellness goals.

RSM US LLP has employed gamification techniques on a broad scale in two major areas: simulations designed to improve strategic alignment and performance and "integration indoctrination," a process designed to promote behaviors by employees that reflect the company's brand. The video game-style simulations were designed about four years ago in partnership with BTS, a global professional services firm, according to Bill Gorman, COO for RSM. Employees work in teams—which typically have six members—through a case study that prepares them to work with key clients.

The team activities foster interpersonal relationships. "Our employee engagement is very high and continues to improve year after year as people go through this," Gorman said. "The alignment to our strategy is indicative in our economic results as well as retention."

RSM awards points to individuals and teams in its indoctrination integration program, Gorman said. Examples of integration indoctrination include client service (such as understanding and relationship building) and talent culture (such as teamwork, diversity, and inclusion).The awarded points then become "recognition dollars" for offices or teams, with the money going to support a local charity selected by employees at each of RSM's offices around the country. "That has been a really good driver for overall employee engagement, and reinforces our core values of teamwork and stewardship, or giving back to the communities where our employees live and work," he said.

CPA firms aren't the only ones exploring gamification; everyone from salespeople to call center representatives has tried it. Gamification works by tapping into the psychological forces that make games so compelling. "CPAs get a little bit nervous as soon as we even mention the word 'gamification,' because they assume that means we're going to be playing games at work," said Monica Cornetti, author of Totally Awesome Training Activity Guide Book: How to Put Gamification to Work for You. Instead, she says, gamification is about applying "the psychology of game design" to a work context. "What is it that keeps people who play games intrigued for hours?" she asks.

Though some early adopters have used gamification in accounting applications, the trend has yet to truly catch on in the profession. Cornetti has delivered presentations at accounting firms, but hasn't implemented gamification at any so far. However, she sees many potential uses for the technique. "In all likelihood, accounting firms will use gamification for employee engagement in the areas of productivity, reduction in errors, learning programs, onboarding, and talent development," she said.   

People who receive positive reinforcement through gamification perform better, according to Cary Walkin, CPA (Canada). "It's all about improving the underlying behaviors in order to get better key performance," said Walkin, a manager of financial systems at Intelex Technologies in Toronto. Walkin has experience with a different kind of gaming: He created a turn-based, role-playing game played in Microsoft Excel while earning his MBA. A course called Advanced Spreadsheet Modeling and Programming inspired him to create the game. "It covers Visual Basic, which is the coding back end of Microsoft Excel," Walkin said. "As I was taking that course, I realized I could use that to make a game. The game started out as a way to remember course material. Just like with math or anything else, repetition allows you to remember things much better."

Other forms of gamification can enhance learning as well. Steven Hornik, a lecturer of accounting at the University of Central Florida, uses the virtual world Second Life to make accounting concepts more understandable for his students. For example, he incorporates cubes that represent each part of an accounting equation. The cubes change size to illustrate how a debit increases an asset while a credit decreases it. The game helps him make abstract concepts, like accounting equations, more tangible for students, he said. Accounting faculty at other universities have also had success using Second Life in the classroom, while the AICPA developed the web-based game Bank On It to introduce high school students to accounting fundamentals and scenarios.

Gamification works because it's a way to give people hands-on experience, said gamer and forensic accountant Chris Ekimoff, CPA/CFF, a director in the Washington office of Resolution Economics Group. You can explain to someone what it's like to investigate fraud, he said, "but until you're sitting in a room interviewing somebody you think has done something illicit, you're not going to have that knowledge, that experience." Games, while not a perfect representation, can at least help simulate accounting-related experiences like that, he said.

Gamification is often associated with Millennials, a generation born with game controllers and keyboards at their fingertips. Gorman acknowledged that many Millennials are more comfortable with technology than some of their older co-workers, but RSM has found that gamification principles translate across generational lines. The company has all of its partners and senior managers participate in the strategy-alignment simulations.

"By using gamification to align our people to our strategy, we've been much more effective in executing that strategy," Gorman said.

Eddie Huffman is a Greensboro, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, contact AICPA Senior Manager–Newsletters Chris Baysden.

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