If you don’ t think that having your employees spend time playing a speed-skating video game competitively on a weekly basis is the path to improved company culture and better productivity, then prepare to be proven wrong by Dan Pontefract, the chief envisioner of Telus Corp.’s transformation office.

When Pontefract joined the telecommunications firm in 2009 to take charge of the company’s learning and education opportunities, he saw that employee engagement was already pretty good. A 2009 Aon Hewitt survey of Telus employees showed a 54 per cent engagement score – about average. But Pontefract didn’t want to just be average, he wanted to be great.

“How are we all going to proverbially sing from the same choir sheet?” he recalled asking himself, speaking in a webinar hosted by ITWC. “Employee engagement is a measure of your culture. Maybe there’s a case to be made that you need to invest in the employee experience, simultaneously putting your customers first.”

Pontefract started Telus down a path that involved learning opportunities, a new leadership strategy, and multiple collaboration technologies. Along the way, not only did the firm see employee engagement rise, but profits and customer satisfaction did too.

Telus’ journey can serve as a model for other firms grappling with digital transformation. Enabling workers with the right mobile and social collaboration tools is keys to the success of such an effort, said Sanjay Khanna, a senior IDC Canada analyst focused on mobile business applications and services.

“To me, this is about how we use technology to help individuals work at their best, how we empower teams to perform at their best,” he says.

IDC anticipates that 2016 will be the year of the mobile enterprise app market, projecting a compound annual growth rate of 18.3 per cent between 2016 to 2020.

In a survey conducted this year, IDC heard from large enterprises that if industry-specific apps (21 per cent) or team collaborative apps (22 per cent) were not developed this year, it would reduce revenue or operational effectiveness. Small businesses especially thought that reducing investment in enterprise social networks would affect revenue, with 16 percent indicating it would be negatively impacted.

“This reflects the new reality that not mobilizing mobile apps will have negative outcomes,” Khanna says.

That brings us back to the speed-skating videogame.

Telus Ignite - speed skating game character
Telus Ignite is a videogame that helps teach empathy to employees.

Telus Ignite Speed Skating takes the concept of gamification very literally. Employees played the game over six weeks as part of a competition that saw races take place every Friday. But the goal of the game isn’t to control your skater perfectly around corners and find the right timing to hit an all-out sprint. Instead, it’s about coaching your skater using Telus’ leadership principles.

“We want to teach empathy,” Pontefract says. Winners get the award of choosing which charity will receive a corporate donation.

Another game, which admittedly sounds less exciting, puts Telus employees in the shoes of a colleague who has to work in a corporate store and interact directly with customers, providing useful insights for employees who don’t typically have to do so.

'Customer's Quest' sees Telus employees put in the shoes of customer-facing workers.

The games are just a couple of the technology tools that Telus uses to engage its workforce of 44,000 – 70 per cent of whom are mobile workers without a regular office. Under the banner of “Habitat Social,” Telus introduced wikis, blogs, a video platform, and a photo-sharing service. But beyond simply building the tools, Telus also made sure employees had a good reason to use them.

“If you recall the Field of Dreams adage – ‘if you build it, they will come’ – that’s not how we did it,” Pontefract says.

From their first contact with Telus, prospective employees are treated using the open leadership model the firm has used since 2010. At onboarding and in coaching sessions, the tools are used as channels to deliver critical information. Executives also buy into and participate with the tools: once per month a leader delivers a live webcast, which is later made available on the video platform.

The results of the push on employee engagement has been clear at Telus, Pontefract says. The employee engagement score in 2015 hit an all-time high of 87, up from just 54 per cent in 2009. Telus has gained a reputation as a good place to work and received a record 322,570 resumes in 2015.

Its sick-day rate is also low compared to the average for unionized organizations, with just 7.5 days per full-time employee in 2015, compared to the 11.1 per cent average.

Better yet, Telus ranks at the top of incumbent telecommunication companies for shareholder return, driving it up 338 per cent since 2000. In 2015, it was 82 percentage points ahead of the number two-ranked firm.

“The balance between customer engagement and these collaborative tools is the way of the future,” he says.

Having enjoyed success at its own digital transformation, Telus now offers a service to help other businesses trying to achieve the same. Pontefract’s transformation office assists its clients in setting up flexible work styles and other cultural aspects.

Just don’t be surprised if one of their techniques involves playing video games.

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