Technology creates new monitoring opportunities
More and more organizations are turning to digital tools to monitor the productivity of their employees. Consider wearables that record the movements of warehouse workers, advanced time-tracking software that optimizes your calendar, website blocking software that tries to keep us away from social media, or the use of smart cameras to identify risks of workplace accidents.
In light of these rapid technological evolutions, public debate increasingly focuses on the legal implications (AI act, GDPR) and the responsible use of the vast amounts of employee data being collected. Rightly so.
However, an equally important question arises. What is the impact of this technology on employee productivity? Does it make us more efficient in our jobs, and most importantly, how do we feel about it?
Back to Hawthorne
It reminds us of an experiment conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne factory of Western Electric, where the original objective was to investigate the relationship between the work environment and employee productivity. The researchers wanted to understand how various factors, such as lighting, working hours, and breaks, affected employee productivity. This study led to a striking observation: employees became more productive simply because the attention shown to them by the researchers had a positive effect on their motivation, regardless of the specific conditions. The infamous Hawthorne effect, therefore, highlights the importance of social and psychological factors for behavioral change in the workplace.
Digital Hawthorne effect?
Is there still a (digital) Hawthorne effect in 2023? Do employees perceive digital monitoring tools as a sign of genuine commitment from the organization to improve their working conditions and thus be more productive?
This question was investigated by Daniel M. Ravid and colleagues in a meta-analysis recently published in Personnel Psychology.
Here are some key take aways:
- 🤷♂️ Productivity: Using electronic performance monitoring does not lead to an improvement in employee productivity. The psychological impact of monitoring on employees often negates potential productivity benefits.
- 🙇♀️ Well-being: Highly invasive monitoring tools (e.g., screening email traffic or tracking biomedical data) lead to more negative attitudes, increased stress, and even counterproductive work behavior among employees. No Hawthorne effect here, possibly a "big brother is watching you" effect.
- 📣 Communication: Organizations that communicate transparently about the use of monitoring tools can reduce the negative psychological impact on employees and even increase trust, perceptions of fairness, and employee satisfaction.
Maintain realistic expectations when implementing monitoring technology in your organization. The fact that new digital applications are becoming increasingly adept at capturing employee behavior and performance does not imply that this will automatically lead to an increase in productivity. When deploying digital monitoring tools, it is essential to do so in a non-invasive manner and provide transparency about the use and purpose of this technology.
In short, when implementing monitoring technology, there should be a pursuit of a healthy balance between maximizing efficiency and safeguarding employee well-being.