Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Video Games & Office Hours

Just recently Amazon has begun testing something almost blasphemous in the America Corporate environment.  Beginning this month, a sub-section of the company will begin working a 30-hour week - while remaining full-time employees.  Amazon's stated goal is to determine whether or not this type of approach to managing employees can pay enough dividends that it can be extended to its entire workforce.

I am extremely interested in seeing how this experiment pans out for a number of reasons.  Why you might ask?  I could write five blog posts on why, but the biggest reason why I am fascinated is because this strategy appears to be rooted, at least partly, in video game design theory.  Amazon is clearly conducting a very intricate, highly analytical psychological experiment upon its workforce.  But are they inventing the psychology or did it originate somewhere else?

There are many people who play online video games and many more that don't.  Yet, video games are some of the most highly profitable and significant entertainment products ever made.  You don't believe so?  Take a close look at the two numbers to understand the significance of gaming.

  • In 2015, the total cumulative box office for all the movies shown in theaters within the United States came to just about $11 Billion.
  • During the same year of 2015, total sales for all video games purchased in the United States almost reached $24 Billion.
Yes, Hollywood has its stars, franchises, and of course the annual Academy Awards.  But from a business perspective, movies as a form of entertainment are merely the "poor relatives" of the gaming industry.

One of the most successful online games of all time (not World of Warcraft) was titled "Destiny" and first came out in Q3, 2014.  For several years before its release, the studio behind the game, Bungie, had a number of doctoral level scientists working to develop behavioral psychology that would integrate into the game's mechanics.  The goal was to maximize player involvement, loyalty, and overall play time.  For a in-depth look at what they did you can look here to see the Reddit article that goes into the detail about what Dr. John Hopson and his team did to mold the Destiny player experience.

Tying this information back to Amazon, I want to focus on several aspects of the psychological gaming theory utilized by Bungie that has direct applicability.  Borrowing liberally from the information laid out in the Reddit article, I believe that Amazon is going to focus heavily on the evaluation of what is called "Fixed Ratio".

Fixed Ratio definition:  "(It's) a very distinct pattern that gives a burst of activities to do at a time but (is) then followed by a long pause."

Rather than requiring the workers to follow a standard (minimum) 40 hour work week that implicitly rewards time spent with "butt in seat", Amazon is specifically constraining the available amount of time to complete tasks.  This represents a gigantic shift in thinking for the traditional American worker.  Most of us have been inculcated with a belief that long hours in the office are good and that with a willingness to stay late and/or work weekends, the time to complete a task can be stretched.  Amazon is basically saying to that philosophy: "Nope, you've got 30 hours and no more to get all of your tasks done.  Now go!"

Another concept that Amazon is seemingly aiming to tackle deals with the subject of "Avoidance".  This term, often associated with procrastination, refers to the tendency of humans to avoid doing hard or unpleasant tasks as long as possible in order to avoid "pain".  In a video game like Destiny, this behavior might manifest as doing simple low risk activities like "Patrol".  However, in terms of the story related to Destiny the most important but most difficult activity is referred to as "Raiding".  

In the video game, players are forced to tackle the hardest tasks if they ever want to progress.  And progressing is fun.  In the workplace, completing a project, innovating a new product, or landing a sale is much more important than filling the copier with paper or making a fresh pot of coffee.  By creating a scarcity of time in which employees can work, Amazon appears to be explicitly emphasizing the requirement/reward of doing the harder, more important work first and de-prioritizing non-value added "make work".  Another side effect of introducing scarcity into the available work hours is the tacit emphasis on collaboration.  Just as in video games, players (or employees in this case), almost universally find more success working in teams as opposed to individual effort.  We might be seeing a very clever strategy by Amazon to create an "organic" desire for people to work together within its workplace rather than mandating collaboration as a rule.

We should all watch this experiment very closely to see whether it works well enough to for Amazon to take it corporate-wide.  Imagine how the entire working experience would change if, instead of dreading a grindingly long work week, you came in eagerly knowing that the clock starts ticking the moment you step into your office.

Would you be more productive, energetic, and enthusiastic if your employer constrained your work hours rather than promoting them while holding you to the same production output levels?

It looks like our work places may start to feel like action video games if Amazon has its way...

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