​​The 'Pok​emon Go' Craze: How Should Workplaces Respond?

Virtual reality game raises concerns about productivity, safety

By Dana Wilkie Jul 18, 2016
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"​Pokémon Go"—the smartphone game that uses augmented reality to create a virtual scavenger hunt—has become a craze in the U.S., including at workplaces, where the mobile nature of the game threatens to hinder productivity and raises concerns about worker safety and employer liability.

" 'Pokémon Go' is one of the most groundbreaking new entries into the world of augmented reality [AR]," said Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). "It raises questions for employers, such as, 'How intrusive or insidious can AR get in the future?' and 'How will it affect my team?' "

With "Pokémon Go," players explore the real world with their smartphones, hunting for 151 different characters at coffee shops and grocery stores—and even at their jobs.

Last week, Irvine, Calif.-based MFour Mobile Research—which conducts surveys on the use of mobile devices—reported that a third of U.S. Android smartphone users 13 and older had downloaded the game that's become the talk of the nation, surpassing Twitter as the most popular current mobile app.
But the game has managed to "wreak havoc on workplace productivity," according to an article on www.inverse.com, which noted that at least one employer posted notices to not play "Pokémon Go" at work.

"The user has to keep his phone open at all times when using the game," the article noted. "Needless to say, this does not spell good news for businesses as workers seem to be dropping duties to play the game."

Said Taylor: "As if the endless barrage of apps, texts, social media pings, viral videos and selfie opportunities were not enough distraction for the average worker, 'Pokémon Go' has all the trappings of mega distraction that currently trump many other tech distractions: sociability; portability; mystery, fantasy and escapism; highly personal; accessible; humorous … all the attributes that can easily lure people away from getting their work done."

Jobs Threatened

There have been news stories of employees who lost their jobs, or almost did, because they played "Pokémon Go" at work.

According to one Reddit post from scarstruck4, who described himself as a "23 year old employee in a Banking/IT company," company officials confiscated his iPhone when they discovered he was using his phone's camera to play the game. When he explained in a meeting with his manager and an HR representative that he was playing the game—not capturing images of clients' personal information—the managers "gave me a nice warning and told [me] that no action is being taken against me," he posted.

An Australian SEO consultant working in Singapore was fired on July 11 after posting on his Facebook page an expletive-filled rant about how the game is currently unavailable in his Singapore-based workplace, 99.co. The CEO of 99.co—which offers map-based presentations of real estate—posted an apology for the worker's behavior on a company blog.

A Cry for Socializing?

Taylor suggested that the popularity of the game at workplaces may signal a need among workers for connecting with one another.

"This phenomenon points to pent-up demand for a more social and motivated workforce," she said. "Now more than ever, in a time where technology has also increased the pace and expectations for workers, there must be balance. The takeaway is to analyze why the demand is so great. How might greater social interaction, fun, humor, mystery and technology be combined and used in a way that is related to work?"

Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Boston's D'Amore McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, said the rage surrounding the game may also indicate that workplaces should be addressing employees' stress.

"Stress relief can be important during the work day, but it's also important to be mindful of what is acceptable in your workplace," she said. "If [workers are] shopping on the Web, reading a stream of Facebook updates or playing a game, someone is likely to notice. If [they] want to play a game to relieve stress, they should do it during a lunch hour or a break. If possible, away from desks so others won't think [they're] playing on the job."

Yet some experts suggested "Pokémon Go" might actually be a great team-building tool at work.

Maxwell Renke, a project manager at the University of New Hampshire's InterOperability Laboratory—which provides interoperability conformance testing for data, telecommunications and storage networking products—said he thinks that employers should embrace the game, for a few reasons.

"It gets people up and away from their desks, walking around," he said. "The strong social aspect of the game can't be understated. It gets people talking, working together and sharing in something that is not only exploratory, but competitive. I think employers should put guidelines in place to discourage people from constantly getting distracted by the new Pokémon outside the window, but still foster the community that has sprung up so rapidly."

Regardless, Renke and others cautioned that the mobile nature of the game could lead to injuries on the job—for instance, in factories or on construction sites—and ultimately, lead to employee liability if a workplace encouraged the playing of the game. Some even say that, for that reason, using the game as a team-building exercise should be avoided.

"The big thing about 'Pokémon Go' is that you have to get up and move around," Renke said. "This encourages people to go for a walk at lunch with their co-workers, but it also encourages people to check the app [while walking] to see if a new Pokémon is around."

Although a fun game played on a phone may seem harmless, there are already reported instances of injury and criminal activity perpetrated on players.  

"Efforts to use 'Pokémon Go'​ as a team-building exercise should be avoided," said Jeffrey M. Adelson, general counsel and managing partner at Santa Ana, Calif.-based Adelson, Testan, Brundo, Novell & Jimenez. "This creates a potential danger to participating employees as the employer is now sending them out of the 'controlled environment' of the workplace. If the management condones or ignores the rules or applies them unevenly, they are endorsing the behavior and opening the company up to liability for potential injuries."  

Added Taylor: "Will employers be held responsible if they try to team-build by visiting PokéStops, or going on a group hunt for Pikachu, and someone gets hurt? Very possible."

Use Existing Policies, or Create New Ones

Experts made these recommendations:

  1. Employee handbook policies should prohibit playing computer or phone games while at work. If a company provides workers with cellphones, the IT department should control the purchase or loading of applications.
  2. This policy is of particular importance for those who work offsite or at home. Such workers can leave the house and have others show up unannounced. "You do not want to discover your at-home employee was lured into a trap while playing a game on the company-provided phone," Adelson said.
  3. Implement a distracted driving policy.
  4. Set forth rules as to social networking involving the workplace.  
  5. Apply the policies consistently to avoid claims of condoning or permitting the activity you are trying to limit.
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