Amazon Expands 'Gamified' Employee Appreciation Program, But Some Workers Say 'Swag Bucks' Aren't Enough
Amazon is using non-monetary incentives to get workers to put in extra hours and increase productivity at its shipping facilities, including "swag bucks" redeemable for branded merchandise.
The program is called FC Games, and turns warehouse tasks into arcade-style video games, where workers compete against one another and are rewarded for things like speed. Those “gaming” performances or additional hours on the clock translate to Amazon’s proprietary currency, which workers can redeem for stuff like T-shirts and water bottles. During the holiday rush, Amazon offers more big-ticket items like gaming consoles and smartwatches.
The program started in 2019, but Amazon is now expanding the program to facilities across 20 states.
“Employees have told us they enjoy having the option to join in these workstation games, and we’re excited to be taking their feedback and expanding the program to even more buildings throughout our network,” Amazon spokesperson Kent Hollenbeck said, according to The Verge. “Even with this expansion, the program remains completely optional for employees; they can switch in or out of different games depending on their preference, can play anonymously, or not play at all—the choice is theirs.”
Like a lot of programs that Amazon implements, it’s not unique. Amazon did not invent employee incentive and motivation programs. But it does have an Amazon spin.
Company stores are nothing new. Employees can use either real dollars or an employee appreciation system to get branded products. It creates a reward for hard work, boosts the business’ brand by giving employees even more ways to carry the logo, and incentivizes hard work.
The trade off, however, is that it typically comes at the expense of real money. And some employees feel that the expectation of more hours and increased productivity from Amazon doesn’t match the reward they’re offering. And, in some cases, the rewards they cash in points for aren't even tangible, like virtual "pet" dinosaurs or narwhals.
— Alex Skandalis (@alexskandalis_) March 15, 2021
Rather than motivating workers, the program has in some cases done the opposite. Workers in the Bessemer, Ala., facility have been discussing the logistics of a union, and it’s something that management is already looking to put a stop to.
“In and out of the stalls in the men’s bathrooms they put anti-union fliers,” Darryl Richardson, an employee at the Bessemer facility, told New York Magazine. “They say ‘Vote early, vote no.’ In the break room, on the tables, ‘Ten ways we don’t need a union.’ Amazon management, from out of town, walking around talking to employees about why we don’t need the union. You know, scare tactics.”
Employee appreciation programs that involve branded merchandise are proven to be effective elsewhere. Whataburger, for example, has an annual event where workers can shop for exclusive branded merchandise, and it was so popular that someone who didn’t even work for the company came in and bought up all the sneakers. If employees take pride in their work, they’ll want to sport their company’s logo.
There are also opportunities to implement that employee store and e-commerce appeal into standard uniform programs. Fast food restaurants like McDonald's have given employees different garment options, so they can express their individuality while still staying in company-compliant uniform.
But, in the case of Amazon, where merchandise and fun are used instead of real monetary incentives that increase quality of life outside of the workplace, it can be patronizing and infantilizing, leading to low employee morale.
“You want to feel good about your workplace,” Richardson said. “You want to feel like you’re appreciated. But it’s not like that there.”