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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Workplace monitoring

 The messaging software company Slack is working on software that will install manager bots to monitor employee production. The bots will be plugged into company networks to monitor an employee’s work. The bots will ask for updates, check employees work status, and even ask what tasks are currently being worked. Managers won’t have to roam the cube farms to keep everyone on point. The bots will do it.

Does this help or hurt employee morale and productivity? Do companies that are constantly looking over employee shoulders getting the results they want?

Many in the workforce have been exposed to a micro manager. Constantly overlooking every detail of an employee’s work. Workers usually respond with frustration or task-to-task completion without innovation. Doing only what has to be done to satisfy the manager, waiting to be told what to do next. The last decade has seen the use of technology to replace that micro manager.

Long before the idea of manager bots technology enabled companies to monitor almost every aspect of a worker’s day. Most, if not all, companies that have computer networks monitor employee email traffic and Internet use. Some even capture keystrokes and keyboard activity, such as how long a keyboard has been inactive. Software enables managers to monitor telecommuters-are they actively working or just logged in to the network? Companies that utilize vehicles track employees through GPS, recording location and length of stay. Hospitals track nurses through the use of sensors embedded to monitor their location and patient visits. And let’s not forget about cameras. With or without using a computer, workers are constantly tracked. How the use of monitoring occurs and is communicated to workers can have varied results.

Hawthorne Effect

Workers who are knowingly being observed tend to be more productive due to what has been called the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect is used to describe the tendency of observed employees to work harder due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of individual work habits.

The Hawthorne Effect is named for the location where worker productivity experiments took place in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works near Hawthorne, Illinois. The electric company had commissioned research to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and the work environment. The focus of the studies was to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light that workers received would have an effect on worker productivity. Employee productivity seemed to increase due to the changes but then decreased after the experiment was over. Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes in the experimental variables.

Transparency Trap

Ethan Bernstein, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School has extensively researched employee monitoring. Bernstein believes that it is difficult for employees to be at their best when they know they are being watched and evaluated at every moment. Bernstein wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Wide open workspaces and copious real time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable.” For his paper, The Transparency Trap, Bernstein conducted several experiments to help prove his theory. In one, Bernstein embedded five Chinese born Harvard undergraduate researchers into the lines of the world's second largest mobile phone factory in China. Controls were added to allow for the Hawthorne Effect.

This particular experiment showed that employees acted and behaved differently when they were being watched. Basically, observed employees followed the policies of the company to the letter while unobserved employees did not. Unobserved employees innovated ways to make their tasks easier, tending to hide process improvements from managers. Two examples were scanning multiple bar codes at once instead of one at time as per policy and crossed trained themselves on breaks. The intent was to improve the process without having the inefficiency of explaining their actions to managers.

Overall, those shielded from observation were more productive than the observed. Experimentation, shared problem solving, and focus flourished.


There are many examples of employee monitoring. Done improperly, with poor communication to employees may cause resentment and a feeling of “Big Brother” is watching. Letting workers know that data is being collected to improve efficiency may alleviate skewed results. UPS has saved millions and improved their schedules by collecting delivery data and providing the analysis back to drivers. You may have heard of how UPS routes were made more efficient by reducing left turns.

Letting employees know that monitoring is taking place, how the data is being used, and how that will improve their workday goes a long way is establishing trust between employer and employee.

Will employees do their best when being observed? Or are they so hindered by the constant oversight that they do the minimum required. If left to themselves would they perform better, working more efficiently with less fear of messing up and being corrected by managers?

These questions that are still being studied. From what is known, it seems that communication between management and the workforce about the use of technology to monitor productivity is a key factor for improvement. Technology will always continue to improve. Innovators will figure out how to apply technology to the workplace. But while people are still involved they need to be kept in the loop.

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