Flow State: Enhancing employee engagement through video game principles.
Originally published on PURE LAMBDA
I love all kinds of media platforms, movies, and tv shows, but especially video games. The difference with video games is that the consumer of the media is involved in the story. It is an interactive experience. We too are involved in the story of our own life.
I want to share with you what gaming professionals have known for decades, and explain how you can use it at work. Let’s talk about the Flow State.
Find the recording of the talk given on this topic as well as the slides used for it.
Flow state: The Zone
Engineers and artists will always say something along the lines of: “When I work on something interesting, I’m in the Zone”, or “shhh!” if they currently are in it. You might have experienced it yourself. When you start working on something you are passionate about at 8 PM, you blink, and it’s 2 AM! What happened? Without realizing it you finished all your work, you were in The Zone.
The Zone was even a big part of the movie Soul from Pixar (Warning minor spoiler).
What is the Zone? What is the Flow State?
Entering Flow State allows you to be in the Zone. Both are synonyms but I like to think about the Zone as a mental place and the Flow State as a mental time. The Flow is a state where time seems to stop while simultaneously speeding up. Hours can feel like seconds in the flow state. It feels like you have accomplished days of work in a matter of mere hours, but at the same time, those hours felt like seconds. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the psychologist who coined this concept “Flow” and described it in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly describes, in his book, the flow state as follows: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”. In this state, your mind is over-performing. Time slows down, you are more focused and you can accomplish more. You are immune to minor distractions.
Section Summary: what is the Flow state and the Zone:
- The Zone and The Flow State are synonyms
- The Zone is a mental space where your mind is over-performing
- Flow State is a mental time where your mind is over-performing
How to enter the Zone?
In video game design, this concept is well known and has been used to keep players engaged. It is used to capture the player’s attention for hours at a time without effort. This is achieved by carefully aligning the difficulty of the game with the player’s skills.
If the task’s difficulty relative to the player’s skill is too high, they will become frustrated and will stop playing. Similarly, if the game is too easy in comparison to the player’s skill they will get bored and disengaged. Balancing the difficulty with the player’s skill enables game designers to keep players of various skill levels engaged. It is hard to achieve this balance as each player is unique with a unique set of skills and learning abilities.
Now, let’s see how this can be used in the workplace. As a manager of a Makers team (engineerings, designers, product managers, …), the goal is to make the team as happy and productive as possible. One great tool to achieve this level of productivity is the Flow State. It is the job of the manager to assign each individual the right tasks based on their skill levels. If the task is too demanding, or too complex, the employee will feel overwhelmed and discouraged. On the other hand, giving trivial tasks to skilled employees will bore them. In both situations, if the situation persists, the employee will most likely end up leaving the company to go work on tasks more appropriate for their skill level, more interesting and/or challenging projects. It is also possible that they will lose motivation completely, become unproductive while staying at their company. In this case, it is possible that the manager will fire them without knowing why their employees under-performed. Remember, at the end of the day, everyone wants to be good at their job.
Section Summary: notes on how to enter the Zone:
- Present challenges that match the skill level
- Tasks too difficult trigger frustration while tasks too easy can trigger boredom
- Employees could be underperforming because they are bored or stuck
The thin boundaries between challenging and frustrating
In video games, there is a big difference between difficulty and frustration. A challenge can be hard to tackle but each failure must give feedback that allows the player to get closer to completing the challenge. A challenge switches from being difficult to being frustrating when it becomes unfair. If there is a bug, if the game is not responsive, or if the rules change without explanation, the player can feel that the failure was due to external factors and not from their skill level. Also if the failure seems arbitrary without feedback, the player will most likely become frustrated and stop playing the game.
A good challenge is all about the feedback loop: the player tries, fails, gets feedback, tries again, succeeds.
Going back to the corporate world, managers must keep track of the skill level of their makers. As time goes on, the employees will acquire more experience and skills, these skills must be valued and used to be sharpened and perfected. More challenging projects must be assigned and educational opportunities must be presented to the employees to allow them to grow their skill level. Ideally, the project difficulty will be following the growth of the Maker. “Difficulty” in the corporate world can be the scope, the responsibilities, the size of the team, the complexity of the problem, the tools involved, the number of stakeholders, the number and size of the customer impacted, and more. All those aspects must be growing with the employee at the same speed as their skill levels increase to consistently keep the next task challenging, interesting, rewarding, and fulfilling.
Summarizing this section, what makes a task a good challenge:
- Failure must trigger clear feedback
- The iteration loop of attempts, failures, retries must be quick
- Failure must be an opportunity to learn
- Difficulty must take the maker’s skill level into account
- Clear communication with the maker to adjust their work as needed
How to stay in The Zone?
To stay in The Zone, the player must first be in an environment that filters distractions out. If someone outside the game is calling you, the flow state will break. People are more performant in a low distraction environment so they can get things done in The Zone. To stay in The Flow state, the game must present challenges that get progressively harder. In addition, the game must introduce new skills and features in a way that the player can use them first in simple situations before getting a chance to master them. The loop looks something like this:
By continuously challenging the player, this loop keeps the players engaged with a sense of progression and learning. In the corporate world, promote learning opportunities for your makers and assign tasks that utilize what they learned.
Section Summary: to help your team stay in the zone you must:
- Provide a distraction-free environment
- Use the learning/practicing loop
- Present learning opportunities
- Recognize what new skills your team has acquired recently, and use those new abilities
How to be in the Zone as a Team?
So far, I’ve focused on individuals finding Flow or even a manager helping an individual find flow, but how does this work for a group of people or a team? Some might think that The Flow state is a single-player concept but it is not.
You have probably experienced entire nights with friends in which time goes by at tremendous speeds. Games will present situations when the team of players has to overcome a large enemy by collaborating and coordinating complementary skills. In these situations, a leader can assign each player specific roles, responsibilities, and dangers to watch out for. In video games, the classic team is composed of a few stereotypical roles: “tank”, “DPS”, and “healer”. The “tank” role is to take the damage of the enemy away from the rest of the team. The “DPS” role is to inflict damage to the foe. And finally, the role of the “healer” is to support the team. In addition, one of the players will take the role of leader, usually the “DPS” or the “healer” because they have a larger view of the battlefield. This team composition allows every player to be engaged with the game, working on the same problem together but from different angles. When battling those challenges, you look at the clock, it is 8 pm and the second later it is 4 am for everyone involved in the battles. That means the entire team has reached a common flow state when the concept of time disappears.
To translate those concepts into the corporate world, let’s analyze what makes those challenges great challenges. The difficulty, as we talked about in previous parts, must be tailored to the level of skills of the team. When the team can’t succeed or has no feedback on why they failed, they will be more likely to give up. For this reason, the leaders and managers of makers’ teams must design well-crafted tasks for each of their team members.
To elevate this Flow State to a team Zone, the team must have a common goal as well as clearly defined roles. Each member of the team must be aware of the skills of the other members, knowing when to utilize each skill to accomplish the objective is essential. This is the role of the leader, but also the role of each team member to remember that one person carries a health potion or one person went through training on this topic recently. Like in video games, each individual in your makers’ team must have a role to play. There is nothing worse than being part of a team where your skills are not needed. In the workplace, you want people that do the task at hand, as well as support people, to help, both are equally important. Having an effective team means having a diverse team composed of individuals with complementary skills.
Have you played board games with friends? Everyone is getting into the role play and the atmosphere of the game but one person is not playing along, gets bored, and ruins the experience for everyone else. Similarly, among the team, if one person feels underutilized or bored, if one person is not in the flow, they will consciously or unconsciously push the other team members outside of the Zone too by becoming a source of distraction, breaking the flow for the whole team. It is the role of the team leader to always keep the team members engaged with the appropriate tasks. However, there is no need to micromanage. One easy solution is to make sure that the assigned tasks for each person include a healthy mix of easy and hard tasks so that makers can switch between challenging and relaxing activities on demand throughout the day. Feel free to read the other article about how to leverage Emergent Behavior in the workplace
This state can be achieved in the corporate world when every individual has a defined role and the team works towards a common goal. Each individual must have something to do at any moment. A break would break the flow for the Makers. If one member of the team exits the flow state, the rest of the team will most likely follow.
Section Summary: to achieve a team flow state:
- The team has a clear goal to achieve
- Each member of the team have a clear role
- There is a healthy mix of doers and supporters in the team composition
- Everyone engages with their work so everyone is in the Zone together
Limitation of the Flow State and burnouts
Now that we know more about the Flow State, we need to learn about the limitations. Endurance and stamina are resources to keep in mind. If you create an environment when your Makers are in a constant flow state, they will burnout. When I am in the flow state, I love it, time flies, I love what I am working on but I often forget to eat and go to sleep too late. I need to go drink some water, be right back! A constant flow state is not a sustainable system.
This is where “pacing” comes into play. Pacing in video games is about having phases of high stress like combat or high stack challenges entwined with low stress, relaxing moments like storylines, videos, or dialogues. In some games, the action never stops and the constant stress can be exhausting.
In the corporate world, you do not want your employees to quit because they are over-stressed. At work, it cannot always be crush time, it cannot always be a short deadline, it cannot always be a huge scope project. Otherwise, the employee will enter into what is called “burnout”. The term was first used in the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement by Herbert Freudenberger. In his book, he defined burnout to be a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. Often ask your employees how they are doing and if the load of work is appropriate. Ask how many meetings they have each day, ask what time they stop their workday, ask what time they have to wake up, and most importantly check-in to make sure your employees are engaged at work. Burnout can cause physical and mental damages. In the long run, earning a few extra dollars at the expense of employee health is never justified.
Section Summary: to avoid burnout for your team:
- In between high-productive moments, allow for rest and learning times
- Your team members’ physical and mental health should be a priority, so be sure to check on them regularly!
- A constant state of Flow isn’t healthy
Thank you for reading this article on The Flow state. You now are equipped with examples to help you understand the principles behind Flow State. Additionally, you have added a new framework to test out with your team to get everyone to enter Flow together!
There are several dimensions to take into consideration: difficulty, employee’s skill and, time:
- To be in the Zone: challenges that are not too hard, not too easy, based on the skill level
- If challenges are too easy for a short amount of time: you can relax
- If challenges are too easy for a long amount of time: you get bored
- If challenges are too hard for a short amount of time: you learn new things or at least learn about what you don’t know
- If challenges are too hard for a long amount of time: you get frustrated and burnout
- If you stay in the Zone for a long amount of long: you get burnout
I summarize those bullets into a handy chart below:
Ideally, you would want a workload that allows you to be in the Zone the majority of the time, entwined with moments of learning and moments of relaxation.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them on LinkedIn or in the comment below.