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When you’re walking around the office, catching up with your team casually or coming in from an offsite meeting, you’ll probably notice all your employees working diligently, focused on the tasks in front of them. You feel proud, knowing that you’ve assembled such a hard-working staff of people. But wait a minute—what were they doing before you started making the rounds?

employees performIt’s an interesting question, and one that could severely impact your business if you happen to be out of the office a majority of the time. How do your employees perform when you’re in the office, compared to when you’re out of the office? How do their attitudes change? And if your employees are goofing off or breaking the rules when you’re gone, is there anything you can do about it, aside from implementing employee productivity tracking tools?

The Hawthorne Effect

First, take a step back and consider the fact that it’s almost certain that your employees perform differently when they’re not being watched. It doesn’t matter how strict your workplace is, what types of people are working for you, or what your leadership style is. It’s human nature to act differently when other people—especially authorities—are around.

In the social sciences, this is called the Hawthorne Effect, and it must be carefully controlled for an experiment to be successful. It was first discovered in a series of experiments on (what else?) employee productivity. During a study, employee productivity seemed to improve, regardless of how their circumstances changed. After the study ended, productivity dropped, returning to normal. It’s a strong indication that employee productivity objectively increases—whether intentionally or unintentionally—when employees know they’re being observed or graded.

This is why simply implementing an accountability method such as email tracking in your workplace can improve productivity.

The authority variable

In some cases, your type of leadership has a direct impact on how powerful this effect is (and what type of effect is observed).

For example, if you’re a highly authoritative and somewhat restrictive boss, who is very precise and detail-oriented, your employees might be more mindful of their work when you’re around than if you’re more relaxed and easygoing about approaches to work. If you constantly criticize your employees, even if it comes from a good place, they may feel tense when you’re near them, and more relaxed when you’re away (which carries benefits and detriments).

Your leadership can also impact the type of work environment your employees perceive. For example, if you manage to build a brand environment that your workers love, they’re naturally going to be more loyal to it. They’ll feel like they’re a genuine part of the brand community, and they’ll naturally work harder for the company, regardless of whether you’re around or not. However, if you don’t have strong ideals of teamwork and community in place, your employees will see this as “just a job,” and will be less likely to perform their best when they aren’t being supervised.

Modern employee monitoring

Modern forms of employee monitoring make the objective productivity factor a bit of a non-issue. There are now dozens of platforms available that automatically track your employees’ time, enabling you to see how much time they spend on various tasks throughout the day. You can monitor things like internet traffic and email patterns, and see how active they are in your online chat (and what they’re chatting about).

Obviously, the catch here is that you’ll have to spend extra time of your own to install and use this software, then figure out whether there truly is an issue. It’s best reserved for investigating suspected problems, rather than being an ongoing investigation. You’ll also need to keep in mind that your employees being aware of the time tracking and monitoring will produce a Hawthorne Effect similar to if you were in the room watching them.

Unsupervised periods

So let’s say you aren’t in person, and you don’t have any employee monitoring set up. How can you tell what your employees are doing? You can look at three things:

  • Bottom-line results. Are phone calls getting ignored? Are deadlines being missed? Bottom-line results matter, and can tell you a lot about how your workforce is doing. Watch for significant variance when your schedule changes and you watch employees more or less.
  • Employee observations. You may be able to hear or notice things from other employees about the state of the office while you’re away. It’s inadvisable to ask your employees to snitch on one another, however.
  • Secondary indicators. You may also be able to judge how your employees perform while unsupervised by gauging the “feel” of the room when you first enter it after a time away. Does everything seem to get quiet and focused all of a sudden? Be careful not to let your paranoia get the better of you here.

The bottom line

There’s no easy way to tell how much your employees’ behavior changes when they aren’t being watched, and it’s inevitable that their behavior will change at least slightly when they are being watched. Ultimately, it isn’t that big of a problem. You can use productivity measurements, and in some cases, direct employee monitoring to see if the work is getting done, and collect feedback from employees to see how they feel about your company.

Regardless of whether they’re supervised or not, you’ll be able to tell what kind of job they’re doing, and you’ll be able to take further action from there (if necessary).

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