The viral mobile game Pokémon GO is a recently released location-based augmented reality mobile game developed for iOS and Android devices. Making use of the GPS and cameras of compatible devices, the game allows players to capture, train and battle virtual creatures, called Pokémon, who appear on device screens as though in the real world.

For the uninitiated,  the player is on a virtual scavenger hunt for 250 animated creatures, which scavenger hunt requires the player to walk around (yes, literally) searching for Pokémon to capture.

Pokémon can appear anywhere, which means that if employees have the game open in the workplace, they can pop up, waiting to be captured, on their (or any of their colleagues') desks, chairs, computers,  in a meeting rooms, the canteen, or even the bathroom.

Whilst Pokémon can materialise at any place or time, there are specific places in the application (called Poké Stops) that allow the player to collect items, such as eggs and more Poké Balls to capture more Pokémon. These Poké Stops are everywhere, and have even been placed in office parks, encouraging employees to venture away from their workplaces to seek them out.

So, how do you know whether your employees are catching Pokémon on the job and if they are, how should you deal with it?

How to catch 'em: Identifying a Pokémon-er

Players are easy to spot based on body language alone. In large groups, they will be there, huddled, heads down or phones up, flicking violently at their screens (read: flinging Poké Balls at Pokémon). If they’re playing with the augmented reality turned on, you’ll see them moving their phones around like they’re taking a photo, or perhaps more accurately, a chaotic panoramic photo. Like someone reading a map, a Pokémon GO player walks with their phone in front of them, turning as they go to see what might be reflected on the map.

The impact Pokémon GO will have on an employer's business

Pokémon GO's impact is largely dependent on the type of business the employer runs and the role in which the Pokémon-er is employed.

The app has already resulted in a number of vehicle accidents and it is safe to say that you do not want your driver to be playing Pokémon GO whilst he is on the road delivering goods.

Where an employee causes damage to property or persons their employer can be held liable for their conduct. This is called the principle of vicarious liability, which entitles the so-called victim of the conduct to recover damages from the employer where the damage was caused by the employee in the course of his duties. This applies whether the employee caused the damage intentionally or negligently.

Accordingly, if a driver crashes into another driver on the road, whilst playing Pokémon GO, the driver into whom he crashed would be entitled to recover damages from the Pokémon-er's employer.

There is likely only a minimal risk that Pokémon-ers will cause real damage. The more likely scenario is that the employer's productivity will take a dive. 

If employees are playing Pokémon GO at work, especially since it requires the player to move around and change locations, chances are that the employees, during these times, are not being productive.  The game is premised on the player being away from their desk, or even the building, on their scavenger hunt to "catch 'em all".  So, while playing during a lunch break may be fine, being absent from his duties would certainly be an issue.

Managing 'em all: How to manage the Pokémon-er

As with any potential work distraction – be it mobile games, social media or even texting – there is the real need for employees to exhibit a modicum of self-control.  However, equally there needs to be an effective management of employee behavior.

In managing Pokémon GO in the workplace,  employers should -

  1. Address it up front: You don’t need to "catch 'em all" before telling employees that playing obsessively during working hours is not acceptable conduct.  Make sure that employees know that, as an employer, you are aware of the game and will be taking steps to limit its impact on productivity.  
  2. Set the boundaries: Tell employees what you deem to be acceptable use of the game in the workplace. This might be to limit play to non-working time, which includes lunch or to ban the use of the app completely. The employer's approach should be measured against the potential impact on its business - if the app has gone viral in the workplace and the entire workforce could benefit from P.A (Pokémon- ers Anonymous) then perhaps a "cold turkey" ban would not go amiss.  
  3. Inform employees of the consequences: Alert employees to the fact that where they are flouting the employer's workplace rules, including neglecting their duties and responsibilities (either intentionally or negligently), there will be disciplinary action taken against them. The severity of the misconduct (and whether the employee has been previously disciplined for the same or similar misconduct) should inform the action taken against the employee, including the sanction issued. Returning to the driver example, where playing the game results in damage to person or property, this would likely justify a harsher sanction than where the employee is taking long lunches in order to visit the nearest Poké Stop.  
  4. Set an example: Employers and mangers should lead by example. Having double standards for this sort of behaviour may affect team dynamics and potentially morale. In addition,  where managers seek to enforce rules to which they do not seem themselves bound, employees are less likely to adhere to rules.

Whilst Pokémon GO might not bring your business to a stand still, it may result in a reduction in productivity until, at the very least, the fad subsides. Until then, employers should be mindful of its impact on the workplace and manage the potential risks accordingly.  You will never "catch ' em all" and never all at once!