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Microsoft wants you to play Minesweeper with your boss. No, really.

Microsoft pushes its Games for Work app on its Teams communications service as a tool to boost worker productivity and morale

Microsoft's Games for Work app allows workers to play together during a Teams meeting. (Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft has a new solution to make workers more productive: Let them play games.

On Wednesday, the company announced its Games for Work app for its workplace communications service, Microsoft Teams. The free app, available in the apps area of Teams today, allows users to play one of four multiplayer games with their colleagues during a meeting. The goal is to help workers build trust, improve how they work together and boost morale — the digital equivalent of the foosball table in the office cafeteria.

The announcement comes as many companies have shifted to workforces that are remote or hybrid, in which workers go to the office part-time. Some managers say having workers spread out makes it hard to build and maintain company culture and foster personal relationships. Others worry productivity may decrease — as a result, a growing number of companies have opted to increase employee monitoring.

Keystroke tracking, screenshots, and facial recognition: The boss may be watching long after the pandemic ends

Experts say gaming, in moderation, may improve the workplace and productivity — helping build social capital that may be waning as workers are not casually connecting in the office as often.

But games could create issues if employers make them mandatory or use them as a crutch for establishing culture, they say. It could also be a problem if workers spend too much time gaming rather than working.

Microsoft’s new suite of games is an example of a company proposing a digital solution to solve an analog problem post-pandemic, said Matt Cain, analyst at research firm Gartner.

“We’re seeing the opening of the new chapter where IT folks are being asked to address things like culture and team health,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Microsoft’s four games, all multiplayer, were developed by Xbox Game Studios’ Microsoft Casual Games. IceBreakers presents players with questions and options to help them get to know each other better. For example: Do you prefer pineapple or pepperoni on your pizza? Minesweeper encourages players to solve problems together. Wordament is a word challenge game that can be played with up to 250 participants. And Solitaire allows players to interact with each other while watching their competitors play their rounds of the digital card game on-screen.

But note to workers: Managers can pull data showing their activity on Microsoft Teams. Account administrators of Microsoft Teams can access details like how many meetings a user participated in as well as audio, video and screen-sharing time on said meetings. When it comes to games, administrators can access how much time was spent on the apps collectively, though they cannot see how much time an individual spent on them.

Your boss can monitor your activities without special software

Jennifer Chatman, professor of management at the Berkeley Haas School of Business, says getting people together for activities unrelated to their work tasks can promote new ideas and help make people more comfortable challenging the status quo. Allowing workers to connect over games may just be worth the time investment, she says. Gaming might be especially helpful for workers who are new to the company, teams that have had recent conflict or employees who have gone above and beyond at work.

“You have to realize you’re playing the long game here,” she said. “Not allowing any time for people to connect could hurt you in small ways in the long run. People may never feel comfortable enough to speak up in meetings.”

To encourage cross-team bonding, for example, Chatman said employers could randomize who plays with one another. Employers could also implement minimums on how many people must participate in order for a game to be played to encourage more workers to get to know each other.

But be careful not to force the fun, Cain said, adding that employers will have to trust employees to use the games wisely. Instead, experts suggest letting teams decide what makes sense, when or how often games should be played, and how they want to use the tool.

“People will likely monitor themselves because they don’t want to get behind in their work,” Chatman said. “They can be trusted to get their work done.”

Cain said employers shouldn’t rely on gaming as the only way to promote culture and productivity.

“Gaming is not going to be an end-all,” he said. “There really should be a series of activities a team can take to feel higher sense of unity.”

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