Lessons from Pokemon Go

Employers can motivate staff by applying the rules of the game to the corporate world

They were out for lunch - a group of office colleagues sitting at the next table.

One of them, in his 40s and clearly a supervisor of some sort, was giving some instructions to his younger subordinate.

Suddenly, she stopped him in mid-sentence and picked up her mobile phone.

"Wait ah, got rare Pokemon," she said matter-of-factly.

He waited patiently for her to finish lobbing her Pokeballs.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

When she finally finished, she turned back to him.

"Okay, carry on," she instructed.

He sighed, shaking his head, and said: "If only work was like Pokemon Go, you would be so much more motivated."

Everyone laughed. I did too, quietly, from the next table.

But later I realised: Hey wait a minute, work IS like Pokemon Go.

In fact, work is like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy and all the other massively popular games that have gripped the world. It's just that we may not want, when we are in our smart business attire, to admit it.

To me, the parallels are obvious.

Hitting a set of diverse, pre-determined targets before you "level up"?

Getting a bonus if your performance exceeds your targets, which gets higher as you break through each successive "tier"?

Forming a temporary team with other people to go on a quest or execute a task, and getting medals or bonus XP (Experience Points) to add to your ledger or curriculum vitae?

Having "guilds" or camps in the organisation with key members installed in various key posts (or "gyms", as Pokemon Go players might call them)?

Certainly, those were some of my thoughts as I sat through a gruelling four-hour briefing earlier this week on setting incentive targets for staff - a meeting that undoubtedly added much XP, but drained an awful lot of HP (Health Points).

Is this particular aspect of good performance a pre-requisite in a good employee?

In which case, it should be part of one's "life stats" when levelling up. Or should it really be bonus XP?

Is it generally best to create a competitive game that star individual players would take to or a more social one that emphasises good team dynamics?

And in a group battle strike, should every individual member be forced to fight with the weapons they were primarily trained in? Or can everyone switch to the most effective weapon on offer?

I'm being only half serious, of course.

As were the authors, I hope, of a whole slew of corporate and human resource (HR) related articles that have been published since the launch of Pokemon Go.

There is one in particular that has been making the rounds online, touting the top seven HR lessons companies can learn from the game.

The first occurs pretty much the moment you start playing the game. One of three types of "starter" Pokemon will appear for your capture - either a Charmander (cute baby dragon), Squirtle (cute baby turtle) or a Bulbasaur (cute green lumbering thing with an onion on its back).

The typical newbie rushes to catch it - not realising that if he waited a little longer, the infinitely cuter and much rarer Pikachu appears. And for some people, Pikachu never appears again.

Voila! HR lesson No. 1: "Recruiters are often given timelines, incentives or pressured into filling a role as soon as possible," says the article. "Talent is the most important asset to any organisation. Do not settle for sub-par talent."

Plink plink! I feel my corporate XP going up already.

Level up to lesson No. 2, which is to look in the right places for talent.

After all, water-type Pokemon are more likely found near the sea or a river, and grass-type Pokemon in parks. Some Pokemon are found only in certain cities or geographical areas.

From there, the list of lessons goes on and on.

Lob the Pokeball too close or too far and you will never catch a Pokemon. In other words, "don't overpay or underpay your employees".

Once captured, some Pokemon can be evolved by their owners into a "higher state" with greater powers.

But players can skip the effort required for this by simply capturing evolved higher-state Pokemon. But this does not always result in a more powerful Pokemon.

The HR lesson in this? "Sometimes we are so focused on looking for employees externally that we forget about the talented roster we already have.

"There are pros and cons to hiring externally versus internally, but both options should always be considered. Perhaps the marketing manager on your team who has 10 years of experience within the organisation has much more potential than an external candidate."

I sense some of you are lost already. Pokemon Go is a bit like organised religion - you have to buy into all of it before any of it makes the remotest bit of sense.

The rest of you are probably rolling your eyes. But before you dismiss all this as just more hogwash by consultants who have nothing better to do, consider this: There is some serious literature on the benefits of game-based learning, especially in picking up the "soft skills" that are valued by employers these days.

Some examples of these soft skills include teamwork, persistence, negotiation, the ability to communicate, solve problems and resolve conflict. These are distinguished from harder and more specific technical skills, such as the ability to work a spreadsheet or craft a piece of furniture.

Soft skills are generally valued, regardless of job or industry type, and workers who possess them tend to stay employable even as they change careers and work in different industries throughout various stages of their lives.

Now, one can hire trainers to list bullet points on Powerpoint slides and try to teach these soft skills in day-long courses held in hotel convention rooms.

But nothing beats learning through practice.

And if training takes place within the safe confines of a game, then employees get all the practice they want or need in a way that is risk-free to themselves and the company - plus it is a whole lot more fun.

Which brings us back to the joke I overheard the supervisor make at lunch.

It is not just that if work were more like Pokemon Go, his staff would be more motivated, but also that if he could make Pokemon Go part of work, his staff would perhaps learn more.

So go ahead and lob those Pokeballs with impunity. For they will be adding to your XP - and in more ways than one.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from Pokemon Go'. Print Edition | Subscribe