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DATA DETECTIVES

Why This Company Is All About Play Time

Business is a lot like a game in that there are both performance metrics and goals. This company took that simile to a whole new level.
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Starting up isn't all fun and games. Or is it?

As a consequence of the financial crisis, Andy Medley and Scott Hill in 2008 were forced to usher in a devastating round of layoffs at their Indianapolis-based marketing company, Perq. That was an experience they never wanted to replicate.

So, the co-founders decided to try something a bit unorthodox: They opened up Perq's books and asked employees to start thinking of the company's revenue as if it were points tallied on a scoreboard. In effect, Perq asked employees to think of the business as a game. 

Medley and Hill say this new philosophy is about goals, numbers, and accountability. Thanks to scoreboards, which are displayed prominently around the office and a monthly financials meeting, now every employee can track his or her "score," or revenue.  

So far, so good. Revenue is up (for 2013, it topped $30 million), and layoffs aren't on the horizon. How does this work for Perq? I asked Hill, Perq's CEO, how this actually plays out:

Why did you decide to gamify the office?
Scott Hill: We started playing games in the office as a healthy and fun way to remind our staff that we think of business as a game. If you look at great teams in any sport, they all work hard, are all very driven toward their goal, they put the team before their individual pursuits, and they have fun doing it. We think a team in business should operate the same way.

How did your employees react when you first implemented the strategy?
SH: We started sharing our financials (the scoreboard) with our very first hires, so we have been doing it since Day One. I think people that are entering the work force now want more than just a paycheck and promotions. They want to learn and make a difference, and by bringing all of our employees into the real "game" that we are playing, they can learn more, and they can see the difference being made.

You keep scoreboards in the office that show the company's progress. What things do you display? How often do you update them?
SH:We have our scoreboards in the highest-traffic area of the company. We display the top three goals we have for the first six months, and if we hit two out of three, we get an extra day of PTO. We also display the department goals each quarter and update those at every monthly recap. We also have quarterly bonus based on financials, and this is currently attached to gross profit generation. We update this daily so that everyone can see how we are doing in real time as much as possible. Again, we want to borrow off a lot of the same game mechanics that make games enjoyable. There are rules, a score, ways to track progress, goals, and rewards.

What impact has this had on morale?
SH: The morale in our company can almost always be tracked back to the scoreboard. If we are "winning," morale is great. If we are "losing," then people are frustrated. I think this is natural and the way every team should feel. We don't want to create artificial or fake fun. We want accomplishing our goals, building a great company, and using it to make a difference in the community to be the real fun.

Of course, when we are winning, we celebrate, and that creates more fun. Everyone in here knows that the fun has to be earned, and sometimes winning comes easier than other times. For our culture, it has had the great effect of having a driven and passionate work force. A person who doesn't care and is looking only for a paycheck won't be tolerated by his or her peers for very long.

Does it create competition between departments?
SH: There is no direct competition, but of course there is a natural healthy competition that exists on who can be the best. Most important, no one wants to let the team down. Don't get me wrong; there are always tensions that can arise at times. However, what we're always looking for are the healthy tensions you want to see in a high-performance team where everyone is pushing one another to be better.

How do your employees react when things are going great? Are they looking for raises?
SH: Isn't everyone always looking for a raise? Open-book management doesn't cause someone to accept less money; it just enables both the company and employee to get more out of their time together.

Last updated: May 23, 2014

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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