The productivity pitfalls of remote working

Let’s talk about an under-explored phenomenon that’s been shaping our remote work productivity: the  ‘Hawthorne Effect’.

The Hawthorne Effect was a landmark study conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago. Its results revolutionised the way we understand human behaviour in workplace settings. The experiment’s findings shed light on the influence of psychological and social factors on productivity. Remember those days when you felt a sudden surge of efficiency just because your boss was watching? Welcome to
the ‘Hawthorne Effect’, a psychological phenomenon where people perform better under observation.

The Hawthorne Effect Experiment
The Hawthorne Effect experiment was originally designed to investigate the impact of lighting conditions on worker productivity. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that regardless of the lighting changes, the productivity of workers improved. They realised that the mere act of being observed and feeling special significantly influenced  the workers’ performance.

The researchers concluded that the workers’ increased productivity was attributed to factors such as being part of a study, receiving attention from management, and feeling valued. These psychological and social elements became known as ‘The Hawthorne Effect’, suggesting that individuals alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed or are in a special situation.

While the Hawthorne studies were conducted in a factory setting, fast forward to today, the Hawthorne Effect still holds relevance, particularly when
considering the disparities in productivity between working from home and working in the office.

Working from Home vs Working from the Office 

While remote work offers numerous benefits, such as flexibility and reduced commute times, there have been concerns about its impact on productivity.

Understanding the Hawthorne Effect provides valuable insights into why remote work might not always match office productivity levels.

Initial studies suggested that working from home may have improved productivity, making this an extremely uncommon win-win for everybody.

Regrettably, the initial favourable results have been disproved as further information has emerged. As many of us suspected, it appears that pigs do not fly, and lunches are not free.

Accountability and Monitoring

The Hawthorne Effect suggests that being observed can enhance performance. In the office, supervisors can easily monitor their team’s activities and provide immediate feedback. This constant oversight fosters a sense of accountability and  encourages employees to maintain high productivity levels.

But what happens when the watchful eyes are replaced by laptop screens and there’s no boss around the corner?
Employees may feel less accountable for their work when they are not physically present in the office. The lack of immediate supervision can lead to a
decrease in productivity as there is less direct observation and feedback on their work habits.

However, in a remote setup, there’s constant digital surveillance. Virtual meetings, email timestamps, and activity trackers have become the new ‘observers’. Consequently, the Hawthorne Effect manifests itself differently. Employees are aware of being monitored, and so they strive to maintain a digital presence, show responsiveness, and demonstrate commitment.

But here’s the catch. The line between being productive and feeling under surveillance can blur, leading to undue stress and burnout, and decreased

Increased Self Awareness
In an office setting, employees are surrounded by colleagues and supervisors, creating a sense of community and camaraderie. The social interactions and the feeling of ‘belongingness’ play a crucial role in motivating employees to stay focused and engaged.

When employees work from home, they may become more aware that they are now in control of their work environment and this increased self-awareness can lead some individuals, to feel less pressured to maintain their usual work pace, thus reducing the Hawthorne Effect’s influence and resulting in decreased productivity.

Distractions and Workalike Balance
Remote work environments can be rife with distractions, ranging from household chores to family members or roommates sharing the same space. The lack of a distinct boundary between work and personal life may hinder employees’ focus and contribute to reduced productivity compared to the office, where the work environment is specifically designed for productivity.

Limited Opportunities for Recognition
In an office setting, employees may receive immediate recognition or praise from supervisors or colleagues for their accomplishments. When working from home, these opportunities for recognition may be reduced, potentially impacting employee motivation and productivity.

Impact on Team Dynamics
The physical separation from the office environment may lead to a reduced sense of significance and pride in one’s work. The lack of daily interactions with colleagues and superiors might diminish the feeling of being part of a team, resulting in lower motivation levels.

Remote work can lead to a sense of disconnection from the team, affecting team dynamics and collaboration. Without regular face-to-face interactions, the sense of belonging and camaraderie among team members may diminish, leading to lower motivation and productivity.

The Hawthorne Effect experiment serves as a valuable lens through which we can understand the potential reasons why working from home might not always yield the same level of productivity as working from the office.

To ensure higher productivity in remote work settings, it is crucial for organisations to consider ways to foster a sense of community, establish clear accountability and feedback mechanisms, address work-life balance challenges, and prioritise employee wellbeing.

By understanding the lessons from the Hawthorne Effect, companies can create more effective remote work policies that harness the full potential of their employees, whether they work from home or in the office.

Organisations should consider these factors and implement strategies to address the challenges associated with remote work to create a balanced and productive work environment for their employees.



By Andrew Mason – WorkplaceFundi


Source: Asset Magazine



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