15/01/2020 7:29 AM IST | Updated 15/01/2020 7:29 AM IST

Is Your Company Gaming You Into Cost Cutting?

"Gamification" is omnipresent in the modern economy to the point that it stops being like a game, and feels a lot like—well—life. And it is pretty clear who is winning.

Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters
An employee sits next to the logo of OYO, at the reception of a hotel in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

BENGALURU, Karnataka —“An employee of one of our clients recently earned a bonus of over Rs. 1 lakh for not taking a business class air ticket for a trip to America,” said Mayank Kukreja, founder and CEO of Itilite (pronounced Itty-light), a company that helps businesses cut their travel expenses by rewarding employees.

The idea is simple — allow employees to pick any options as permitted by the company travel policy, but provide a cash incentive for choosing cheaper flights and hotels. 

A typical two day business trip for a couple of quick meetings, business hotel stay and prime time flights could easily cost a company Rs. 40,000. But choosing a cheap Oyo Townhouse, and a red-eye flight could reduce the cost of the trip to as little as Rs 15,000.

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“For you, the employee, it won’t actually make much of a difference, but the company just saved more than 50% of the cost.” Kukreja said.

But cost-cutting like this, Kukreja found when he worked as a consultant at McKinsey, had a very negative impact on employee morale. 

Of the Rs. 25,000 the company would save on the trip, Kukreja said, “What if they gave you Rs. 10,000? They’re still saving Rs. 15,000, but you just got a nice little bonus.”

When it comes to international business travel, the potential for savings for companies, and rewards for employees are sky high. “Which is also great for business. That guy who earned a lakh for choosing an economy ticket is going to be our strongest evangelist whenever he joins a new company,” Kukreja said. 

Enterprise gamification is the latest salvo in the perennial battle between labour and management. Only now, with the advent of big-data and tech-platforms and the dissolution of collective bargaining agreements, white-collar workers are being incentivised to participate in their own exploitation. 

While the motives of companies like Itilite are well-intentioned, HR professionals suggested that at a time of shrinking profits and brutal cost-cutting, these strategies can quite quickly turn against the employees.

Once enough people book incentives by choosing the cheapest travel options, an HR professional asking for anonymity said, the company could just decide that employees are perfectly happy choosing red-eye flights and pokey Oyo hotels, and reduce travel budgets accordingly.

“For the next round of cost cuts, you say, everyone is fine with this, so we’re changing the policy to remove the higher end options,” the HR professional said. “This cuts the costs, reduces the incentive so you can still keep the system, without having to give people lakhs in payouts.”

Management: 1; Workers: Oyo

Bias in the system

Once you start looking for it, “Gamification” is omnipresent in the modern economy to the point that it stops being like a game, and feels a lot like—well—life. And it is pretty clear who is winning.

Pune-based CarIQ sells what is essentially a Fitbit for your car, tracking how long you drove, how much fuel you used, how often you braked, and so on. You don’t need to buy it yourself though— if you have Bajaj Allianz auto insurance, they offer CarIQs dongle as part of their Drivesmart insurance.

“Our idea was that if you have a CarIQ, an insurance company will get a much better idea about the condition of the car, how carefully you’re driving, they can offer updates based on your usage. And then they can also give you special offers.” Sagar Apte, a founder at CarIQ, told HuffPost India in 2018. 

CarIQ doesn’t share personal data with the insurance company, Apte said, “But if through machine analysis of your driving I can say that you are a good driver, then the company can offer you a better deal, with lower premiums.”

"10,000 steps a day being good for your health is simply pure marketing spin."

Aditya Birla offers something similar for health insurance. The Active Dayz plan, which accepts data from a large number of fitness devices, and if a user  “If you don’t have a device, we can provide you with a Fitbit also, all you have to do is wear it, and be active. As long as you complete 10,000 steps a day for 13 days in a month, you’ll get a 30% discount on your premium,” the agent explained. 

As it turns out, the 10,000 steps a day being good for your health is simply pure marketing spin. The number first came up in marketing campaigns for a Japanese pedometer because someone noticed that the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a person walking, NPRreported.

“The original basis of the number was not scientifically determined,” researcher I-Min Lee of Brigham and Women’s Hospital told NPR. Women who took about 4,000 steps per day got a boost in longevity, compared with women who took fewer steps. 

“It was sort of surprising,” Lee said. The benefits of walking maxed out at about 7,500 steps, but the insurance benefits require you to walk further every single day nonetheless.

Buyer beware

If there is any good news in this time of relentless data surveillance, it is this: People continue to find ways to game the system. If fitness trackers are sharing your data with insurance firms and forcing you to walk 10,000 steps a day, there are blogs telling you how to fake the numbers on these devices.

This post, for instance, details how you can increase your steps tested on a Fitbit Flex 2, one of the devices on Aditya Birla’s approved list, and the method will likely work with other fitness trackers as well.

The simplest method would be to just swing your arm while sitting down, which could give you an additional 100 steps a minute while sitting and watching television; another method is to attach the Fitbit to a string, to easily swing it back and forth, adding about 120 steps per minute, with far less exertion. Other people have talked about attaching trackers to their pets. Given enough time, and enough incentives, you can imagine the birth of a jugaad economy of people who will take your steps for you, for a fee.

Till then, be wary when your company comes up with a great new scheme that looks too good to be true—it probably is.