Amazon is not playing games (oh, yes it is) with warehouse worker performance

Discussion
Photo: Amazon
Mar 16, 2021
George Anderson

Everyone knows that Amazon.com sets high performance standards for those fulfilling orders in its distribution facilities. While some say they like the pace of work at Amazon’s warehouses, others contend the company is setting unrealistic goals that set workers up for failure.

The e-tailing and technology giant has sought to continue to meet its productivity goals while introducing an element of fun into getting the job done with a gamification system that translates common job tasks performed by warehouse workers into rewards as they level up their performances, in a manner of speaking.

Amazon, according to a story originally reported by The Information and picked up by others, is installing small video screens near the workstations of employees in its warehouses. The screens display video games involving such competitive activities as racing and castle building. The ability to progress during the games, with titles such as CastleCrafter, Dragon Duel, MissionRacer and PicksInSpace, is tied to completion of tasks as associates go about their jobs. Workers can play the game individually or compete as part of small or large teams. Those playing the games receive points, virtual badges and other incentives as they work/play through their shifts.

The company developed the FC Gaming system in-house as a means to remove some of the boredom that may come with the execution of repetitive tasks and, in the process, to improve performance.

Jane McGonigal, a video game designer, said that the competitive aspect of games can have a negative impact on performance, as well, and needs to be closely monitored.

“Competition is only enjoyable for a short time,” she told The Washington Post. “As soon as workers start underperforming against their colleagues, it becomes less fun and can actually be counterproductive.”

Amazon originally tested gamification at a warehouse in the Seattle area back in 2017 before bringing it to five other facilities in recent years. The company, according to the most recent reporting, is now rolling the system out to warehouses in 20 states.

Amazon, which has been criticized for its treatment of warehouse workers, says that it does not monitor the results of the games or penalize employees who do not play. Workers are tracked and assessed, however, for a variety of different performance factors as part of their regular routines. Whether those assessments become more rigorous once games are introduced is not yet publicly known.

Editor’s note: Amazon emailed the following statement to RetailWire in response to this article. “Employees have told us they enjoy having the option to join in these workstation games, and we’re excited to be taking their feedback and expanding the program to even more buildings throughout our network. Even with this expansion, the program remains completely optional for employees; they can switch in or out of different games depending on their preference, can play anonymously, or not play at all — the choice is theirs.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as the pros and cons of using gamification in workplaces such as warehouses and stores? How should Amazon and others using gamification in the workplace assess the value of their investments in this area?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Gamification is a thinly veiled approach to adding even more granular monitoring of what employees are achieving and more importantly not achieving."
"Warehouses are dangerous environments. Anything that takes a worker’s focus away from his or her tasks is a danger to the worker and his colleagues."
"Silly rewards, with no intrinsic value, seem downright insulting. So no, I’m not a fan of this."

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20 Comments on "Amazon is not playing games (oh, yes it is) with warehouse worker performance"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Most businesses try to continuously improve productivity, so I wouldn’t knock Amazon. Gamification is not new, and I don’t see any downside in using it in Amazon warehouses. There are lots of jobs that are boring and monotonous, so making the time pass in a more interesting way seems reasonable. Ultimately, employee satisfaction would be a good indicator of the impact gamification may be having.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Gamification is simply a way to measure performance. At the same time, it can create personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Depending on how it’s used, it helps employees know where they are personally and compared to some of their colleagues. Sometimes, it can be (as the name implies) a game. If using gamification, the company must be careful to not create a competitive atmosphere with obvious winners and losers. That’s one potential downside. The upside is the employee’s desire to do better than yesterday’s score. Many companies, especially in the support center world, find gamification boosts productivity.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

The pro is that it makes the work environment more interesting and exciting. The con is that the “game” may tend to get stale and, therefore, management needs to come up with a new game every so often.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

The concept does give me a pause. Not knowing the specifics of the game it is hard to comment. But safety is as important as speed and efficiency in warehouse environments. It is very common to see incident-free days marked proudly in the warehouse.

What is being measured? Does the gamification encourage the right behaviors across key parameters for safety, speed, accuracy and efficiency?

More long term questions: what is the impact on workers? Do workers that do not take part feel left out?

Obviously there are more questions than answers, but it will be interesting to watch the space.

Zach Zalowitz
BrainTrust

Great call outs Suresh. It’s important to have speed, but WITH accuracy. Love your comments on long-term impacts. It’s interesting to see all the hype without the research (yet) on psychological impacts.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Great point about incentivizing the right behaviors and watching out for unintended consequences, Suresh. The incentive systems at Wells Fargo worked out great — until they didn’t. If the games continue to be a source of engagement and appropriate reward they will be great. If they become the end game of coming to work in general they will be a problem. And voluntary participation is mandatory. Some people are gamers from the jump and some (like me) just aren’t.

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

Great point about safety, Suresh. It’s a thin line between interaction and distraction. They should not only measure productivity improvements but at the same time monitor safety metrics.

Zach Zalowitz
BrainTrust

Our own UX teams have really been diving into this topic lately, and what I’ve found through our research is that sometimes gamification is not as motivating as people want. From the details of the article I read yesterday, some of the extrinsic motivators aren’t actual dollar values, rather they are giving virtual/digital toys. I think the risk sometimes is thinking that gamification is simply points, leaderboards, and badges. It’s much more than that. On the intrinsic front, things like socialization of your performance are created motivators (pro) but the con here is that you could potentially create rifts between works as to who’s “best” vs. “not as good,” which could be demotivating.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Wonderful comments by Jane McGonigal. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea and an effort to benefit workers–it’s not. Unionization at Amazon is a thing because the output expectations and company demands are so high that workers feel they need a union to protect them and find a balance between reasonable working conditions and compensation and company needs. Gamification is a thinly veiled approach to adding even more granular monitoring of what employees are achieving and more importantly not achieving that won’t change the conditions driving unionization efforts and for many, will make conditions worse.

You heard it here first: in the future, “gamification” will be added to the list of Amazon warehouse worker grievances.

Zach Zalowitz
BrainTrust

Agreed Ken!

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

Warehouses are dangerous environments. Anything that takes a worker’s focus away from his or her tasks is a danger to the worker and his colleagues. If these games become competitive then who knows how a worker will react. Taking risks to get back to the game or having the wrong mindset for working in this environment — it could take a number of forms. By definition, warehouses are places for work, not play. All it will take is one fatal accident and people will take a very different view of this type of activity.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I understand the rationale behind trying to make jobs less boring but have concerns about the distractions gamification might bring. In a past life I was responsible for a dairy/ice cream plant and the refrigerated and frozen warehouses. Two of my major concerns have already been mentioned in other comments. Safety is the primary one followed by accuracy.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Gamification is a great step, especially for routine work. However for the competitive appeal to work the teams and contributors need to be evenly matched. If not properly targeted, gamification can also push employees to work on less than optimal targets or the wrong goals. The ability to overachieve can also be lost once employees hit their key quotas or levels. Lastly, employees need to know that the gamification is still serious work. Value assessment would be straightforward – standard before and after quantified productivity levels would be a great starting point.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The “gamification” that we are talking about today has been around for about 10 years. It was originally used not for productivity but to increase the profile of companies, websites, and products.

But the reality is gamification has been used by companies to increase performance since way before I entered business more than 50 years ago. Wasn’t that monthly listing of sales versus quota gamification? Wasn’t that trip to Hawaii for the for the top three performers against the Holiday Challenge gamification?

In my opinion this is a good move, not just for productivity, but to make a mundane job with little incentive more fun. I agree, the individual games can’t go on forever. There must be a rest period to keep them fresh and interesting. The rules should change each time, also. How about teams every once in a while?

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

There is this famous theory of work motivation created by MIT’s Douglas McGregor in ’50s that classifies motivation into theory X and theory Y. Under theory X, workers are extrinsically motivated and they need to be monitored closely for their performance using the carrot and stick approach. This applies to blue-collar workers like the Amazon warehouse workers. On the other hand, knowledge workers fall under theory Y — they are intrinsically motivated, don’t have to be supervised closely, and derive satisfaction out of performing their job well and the learning it presents.

What Amazon is trying to do here is really commendable looking at it through this lens. They are trying to use gamification to change the worker mindset to be more intrinsically motivated. The main con I see here is the risk of demotivating someone when they are consistently losing the game so to speak. The best way to handle that is to do what Fitbit does — create a competition with oneself; self-motivate to better one’s personal best.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

By design, gamification adds a layer of attention between the worker and their tasks. If a job is so tedious that it requires a distraction from monotony, maybe it’s the job itself that needs re-consideration. Silly rewards, with no intrinsic value, seem downright insulting.

So no, I’m not a fan of this. I am an advocate, however, of providing workers with tools that enable them to succeed at their goals and maintain a continuous view of their own performance. Self-scoring, team success, and peer group benchmarking can enable a sense of self worth. Fold in genuine incentives — like bonuses or paid time off for top performing teams — and you have a formula for motivation.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Those who believe a job well done is its own reward will likely see this as a wrong path. I was one (of the nearly 2/3) who voted some version of “ineffective,” so we’re thinking the pros have been overstated and the cons under; it’ll be another of those “prove us wrong” moments … one of many with Amazon (and of course sometimes they do).

storewanderer
Guest
27 days 9 hours ago

Given many younger warehouse employees may somehow be motivated by this, I can see why they tried it. Not sure how effective it will be with efficiency.

But there is one thing it was effective at: getting us here to talk about and think about Amazon again today.

Matt Jones
Guest

In my experience, gamification is micromanagement applied when leadership does not build a culture where each member of the team believes their job helps their customer in some tangible way … i.e. lower costs equaling lower prices, etc.

Allison McGuire
BrainTrust

There is certainly a place for gamification in business, but this is not it. Workers need to be motivated by ambition and pride, not a game. I think this detracts from the work at hand and is strictly a gimmick that won’t stand the test of time.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Gamification is a thinly veiled approach to adding even more granular monitoring of what employees are achieving and more importantly not achieving."
"Warehouses are dangerous environments. Anything that takes a worker’s focus away from his or her tasks is a danger to the worker and his colleagues."
"Silly rewards, with no intrinsic value, seem downright insulting. So no, I’m not a fan of this."

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