Can Gamification and Visualization Green Our Workplaces?

Few workers know whether their green efforts in the office make any difference
Alan Morantz
Small tree grows out of a laptop

The essentials

  • In one study, gamification—the addition of game elements to a workplace system—showed promise in encouraging employees to reduce their energy use at work.
  • Another study showed that employees who set eco-friendly goals, devised a plan to overcome potential barriers and visualized success were better at reaching their goals and sustaining their behaviour after the study was over.

In normal times—before the pandemic gave us all a crash course in remote working—the average U.S. office employee generated about two pounds of paper and paperboard products each day. One study found that nearly half of all printed documents are thrown away within 24 hours, and 30 per cent are never picked up from the printer. And that’s just paper products. Let’s not even think about wildly inefficient energy use, dubious business travel and general wasteful practices that make workplaces sinkholes of environmental sustainability.

This litany is not for shaming and blaming. It merely illustrates that many of us who dutifully separate our recyclables, run washing machines during off-peak hours and mindfully purchase “green” products at home have a hard time behaving that way at work.

Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against us. As employees, we engage in eco-friendly activities at our discretion—and do so for scant reward and without the feedback mechanisms that are built into our personal lives. At home, when the utility bills arrive each month, we have a report card on our performance and the motivation to improve. At work, we have no such measures of our environmental footprint.

“Organizational factors such as power relations, group influences, reward structures, competing goals and corporate norms and values create a different context than private life,” says Jane Webster, Professor Emeritus and E. Marie Shantz Chair of Digital Technology at Smith School of Business.

Testing the power of games

Studies have recently been conducted into the organizational factors that encourage workers to behave sustainably. Many have taken a top-down view, stressing the importance of leadership, training and ethical corporate culture.

While Webster and Smith colleague Sandy Staples don’t discount the importance of organizational initiatives and commitment, they take a bottom-up view, focusing on how to tease out more pro-environmental behaviours from individual employees. They have been early and prolific researchers in this area, eager to borrow what works from areas outside the workplace.

Years ago, for example, they collaborated with colleagues at Smith, York University and HEC Montréal to develop an app that gave employees real-time feedback on how much energy they were consuming. The app communicated with a wattmeter that measured energy use from employees’ computers, monitors and printers.

Instead of simply reporting energy use data to employees, the app took a gamification approach—that is, the addition of game elements to a workplace system. When an employee used less energy than the baseline period, for example, the app displayed a green garden, full of flowers and a flying bird. If the employee used more, the garden could wither and eventually die. The app also provided daily energy conservation tips focusing on behaviours that contribute to energy conservation.

The research team showed that a gamification approach could change behaviours. On average, energy use decreased during the period when employees used the app. When the test period was over and the app was taken away, the dreaded rebound effect happened, but not as bad as feared. While employees did not do as well as they did during the intervention, their energy conservation behaviours were still better than the baseline period. 

Webster is still a believer in applying game mechanics to workplace sustainability, though she's exasperated by how some organizations are implementing it. She says some existing gamified systems are poorly designed and static. To reduce the chance that employees tire of the game elements and return to old habits, systems should keep users engaged with progressive elements such as quests and increasing levels of difficulty, she says.

Setting sustainable goals

More recently, Staples, Webster and a former student, Catherine Lv, explored whether goal setting, combined with planning and visualization, could help employees reduce their energy consumption. Goal setting has shown to be an effective way to increase peoples’ pro-environment behaviour in their personal lives. The researchers wondered whether it would be equally effective in a work setting in which workers aren’t necessarily the ones setting the goals and rarely know the energy savings that result from their good efforts.

In their first study, they observed employees’ electricity usage over six weeks. One group was asked to set goals, such as switching off a computer monitor or printer when not in use for more than 15 minutes or bringing lunches in reusable packaging. A second group was told to also develop plans on how to achieve those goals (“If I need to print out a document, I will use double-sided printing”).

The researchers found that goal setting alone and in tandem with planning increased employees’ green behaviour. Having a plan didn’t change the outcomes. And when the experiment ended, so did the green behaviour.

In their second study, the researchers replicated the first with a group of university students—with one big difference: the students were asked to list three barriers to reaching their goals and to develop strategies to overcome them. They were also instructed to visualize themselves using these strategies. Research in habit formation has shown that visualization strengthens the relationship between a cue and the preferred behaviour.

This time, the results were promising. The students who visualized themselves overcoming the obstacles to green behaviour continued to be successful over the four-week study. The positive effects lasted longer and the rebound effect was markedly reduced.

“These visualizers seemed to be more resilient in terms of dealing with competing goals,” says Webster. “At work, you have all these other goals, like your boss telling you to get your sales up or prepare a report. You're not thinking as much about less focal goals like the environment. But the people who visualized seem to be able to juggle both organizational-level goals and their environmental goals much better.” 

Employees are part of the solution

The beauty of interventions such as gamified apps or visualized goal setting is that they tap into the desire of many employees to be better environmental stewards. Organizations should take note since few firms have shown interest in channelling this built-in motivation. Asking employees for their suggestions would be a good place to start. Giving them feedback on their energy use at work would be even better. “Most of us want to do the best thing for the environment,” says Webster, “but we're confused about the most impactful behaviours.”

But let’s not put all the focus on the individual worker. Environmental sustainability is a job for everyone. Top executives set the tone in words and deed, setting a strategic direction in which products are designed using new manufacturing processes. Middle managers advance the agenda by purchasing with sustainability in mind, optimizing shipping and holding virtual meetings rather than travelling. And, yes, we employees can do our part by carpooling, switching off computers and peripherals at the end of the day and campaigning for environmental issues. 

With the effect of a changing climate closing in on us and shuttered offices beginning to open, we face both a burning issue and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset our workplace habits and attitudes. Let’s not waste the opportunity.

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