Did you know that the world is now inhabited by creatures called Pokémon?  (Or maybe they’ve always been there?)  Some run across the plains; others fly through the skies; and some live in the mountains….and some, yes, some, are located right in your workplace.  Through the magic of downloading Pokémon Go to your smartphone, you too can see these creatures and catch them for some apparently critical scientific testing.

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Employers not familiar with Pikachu, Charizard, and Lucario can rest assured – your employees are.  In less than one week,Pokémon Go became the most downloaded smartphone videogame ever, and employers are clamoring for advice on how to deal with a workforce that already seems sufficiently and consistently distracted.

While employers may be used to seeing brief levels of high distraction during community events like March Madness, uncertainly surrounds this new obsession.  And an obsession it seems to be: sometimes when you look around Manhattan, you think you are in the least threatening version of the Walking Dead.  We even heard that someone just opened the first ever Pokémon-friendly hotel in Australia!  And this may only be the beginning as “augmented reality”-based gaming technology will likely improve in the coming years.

So what should employers do in response? 

The first thing we’d say is to keep some perspective.  Before you do anything else, make a judgment call over whether you think the Pokémon Go craze will be short-lived – just a temporary blip on the employee-distraction radar, and if you think it will be, consider whether your planned reaction would really amount to an overreaction.  Remember: everyone could not get enough of Angry Birds, Words with Friends, and Candy Crush.  Is this just more of that?  If so, perhaps a quick and friendly preemptive reminder to employees that working time does not mean training your Bulbasaur to fight a Charmelon.  But if you think this is something different; something more serious, then a stronger communication/directive or an outright workplace ban may be in order.

The second thing we’d say is to consider converting this into an employee engagement opportunity.  Determine whether embracing this latest fad rather than suppressing it will pay morale boosting dividends.  There may be tremendous team-building and social engagement opportunities available, given the game’s team-based format.  Further (and we never thought we’d write something like the following, but), consider whether incentivizing your employees to search for imaginary monsters is an effective employee wellness activity.  (See: a more creative version of paying someone to walk 10,000 steps a day.)

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Third, remind employees to play safely. This picture says it all.  People are playingPokémon Go while driving, and two men even fell off a 90-foot cliff in San Diego searching for Pokémon! The humorous and not-so-humorous Pokémon-related accident examples grow by the day. There have even been reports of employees leaning out of windows to get better reception and chasing Pokémon critters and nearly falling downstairs.  And problems can and often will arise when employees encroach on another employee’s work space or enter dangerous workplace areas while playing.  Employers therefore, should consider prohibiting their employees from playing the game on company premises or at least restrict it to certain areas and to certain times.

And the risk of an accident becomes even greater when employees operate company vehicles.  Employers should remind employees that while the game creates an augmented reality, they live in plain old regular reality, so if they see an ultra-rare Articuno Pokemon in the center lane of the 405, ignore it and keep driving.  At the same time, it’s not just the game-playing employee who creates the danger; often times, it is the game-playing civilian.  So tell employees, like your delivery drivers, to be on the lookout for individuals not paying attention to their surroundings as they cross streets even if it seems ridiculously obvious that they should know this already.

Lastly, remind employees about your electronic use policies’ application toPokémon Go (or scramble to put some in place)!  Within certain parameters, employers have widespread discretion to monitor employees’ internet use on employer-provided computers and devices, to track employees’ data usage on the company’s purchased bandwidth, and to block certain websites and traffic patterns.  And this is no different when it comes to using employer-provided mobile devices where employees play Pokémon Go, or when employees are playingPokémon Go in workplaces on work time.  Employers therefore, should seize this opportunity to review existing acceptable use policies to ensure that the risks posed by this “phenomenon” are specifically addressed – and if your company does not have an electronic use or acceptable use policy, this is absolutely the time to get one in place.  Some of the more immediate risks (beyond the loss of productivity) that should be addressed, include the following:

  • If using company-owned devices, a download of this app or any related app should be prohibited.  Some of the Pokémon Go-related applications have been proven to contain malware and depending what is on the device, this may be creating a potential data leak (or even data breach) situation.
  • Depending on where employees might be wandering, they are recording what they see while playing Pokémon Go, and could create privacy issues or even create data breaches that may be reportable.
  • Registration using a company-provided email address should be prohibited.  Collection of email addresses of Pokémon Go players have been reported to have been used in “phishing” involving the game and could put company information at risk.

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Conclusion

In an age where technological innovation can negatively affect productivity by making it easier for employees to indulge in frivolous distractions (not to mention impact the overall quality of the labor pool when employers mistakenly hire candidates who have merely wandered into an interview in pursuit of an Ivysaur), employers can sometimes overlook the benefits of a tech-savvy workforce and the technology they have at their disposal. While employers should take steps to limit the employee distraction, safety, data breach and privacy-related concerns associated with Pokémon Go, they should also recognize the potential employee engagement opportunity that this novel game presents.