How Workplace Monitoring Can Hinder Productivity How well can you do your job--and how much will you enjoy your job--if you know you're always being watched or monitored?

March 22, 2016

It's hard to second-guess anything Slack is doing, or even anything it says it's going to do. 

After all, this is Slack we're talking about. The founder is serial entrepreneur and Inccover boy Stewart Butterfield. If you haven't heard of him, you've surely heard of his two hit companies: Flickr and Slack. He and his partners sold Flickr to Yahoo for roughly $22 million in 2004. In 2012, he started Slack, the messaging-software company, which now has more than 1.7 million users, a $2.8 billion valuation, and was deemed Inc's 2015 company of the year.

So when I read recently in Quartz about how Slack is working on manager bots that will automatically check up on employees--so that actual human managers won't have to--my first reaction was: "Slack obviously knows what it's doing. This idea could be huge." 

Yet as the idea basked in my head, I wondered if such a bot would really be the best thing for companies and employees. So much depends, of course, on designs and details none of us knows about yet. But operating on the bare-bones outline of the idea--bots monitoring employees--there are a few reasons to be skeptical. 

In the interest of full-disclosure, the staff at Inc uses Slack to manage workflows and other employee interactions, including frivolous ones about the NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier this week, I was thrilled to share via Slack my Final Four picks--Oregon, Virginia, Kansas, and West Virginia--with my colleague Kevin Ryan, who works in another state. Kevin shared his picks--Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, and Michigan State--and then we went back to work. And in that small way, Slack made my job a better place, even though what we were "Slacking" about had nothing to do with productivity or managerial check-ins. 

It had to do with human connections. And with fun. And it would not have happened if Inc were using Slack-bots to monitor my productivity. 

There are larger questions at work here, and they are pertinent to any organization: The questions are: How well can you do your job--and how much will you enjoy your job--if you know you're always being watched or monitored?

Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, has intensely researched this subject, which sometimes falls under the oft-used rubric of "transparency." To be sure, there's plenty to like about transparency, in all of its entrepreneurial manifestations. These include open-book management; the sharing of employee compensation levels; and corporate social responsibility reports.

But there are comparable downsides to transparency, depending on how you slice such an all-encompassing term. One of them is the way it can hinder productivity. It's hard to be your smoothest or smartest self when you know you're being watched--and possibly evaluated--at every moment. "Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether," Bernstein writes 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."

To research his HBR article, entitled "The Transparency Trap," Bernstein embedded five Chinese-born Harvard undergraduate researchers into the lines of the world's second largest mobile phone factory, located in China. The five embeds worked, ate, and lived alongside their coworkers, who were not privy to the experiment. 

I interviewed four of the embeds for an Inc story in late 2014. Here's what they observed: Even seemingly unremarkable behavior--such as wearing rubber gloves when assembling or handling components--changed immensely, because the employees knew they were being watched. Factory rules stated that line workers were supposed to wear gloves or fingertip covers on both hands. But here's what one of the embeds noticed, when the workers were unobserved:

People usually wear their gloves in their own ways--either they wear a glove on only one hand or they cut their gloves so their fingertips stick out, giving them a bare hand or bare fingertips so when they are doing little things it goes a lot faster.

You can see how fruitful this observation is. On the macro level, it reveals employees obey glove procedures only when they're watched. On more granular levels, it suggests that the gloves are poorly designed; that employees will break rules (and endure safety risks) to meet productivity goals; and that management has possibly overstressed productivity at the expense of safety.

Moreover, Bernstein's team noticed that factory teams worked faster--that is, they were more productive--when they were unobserved. Bernstein set up curtains around four of the factory's 32 lines, shielding the workers on those lines from observation. "Over the next five months, to my surprise, the lines with curtains were 10 to 15 percent more productive than the rest," he writes.

By contrast, the employees on regularly observed lines routinely hid process improvements from managers. The reason? One worker told an embed that it was "most efficient to hide it now and discuss it later. Everyone is happy: They see what they expect to see, and we meet our targets."

So while it is hard to second-guess anything Slack is planning, given how successful the company has been, Bernstein's research suggests that managers need to be careful about the way they monitor employees. Whether they do it themselves, or use bots, or use software that uses bots, there is a serious risk that you will hamper employee joy and productivity--and hinder employee honesty--if the employees know they are always being monitored. Life's most enjoyable, creative moments--in and out of the workplace--come when you know you're not being supervised or scrutinized.

BY ILAN MOCHARI
 
Chicago river at night
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