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OM in the News: How Much Should Employees Be Monitored?

April 11, 2016

monitoringHarvard Professor Ethan Bernstein asks the question: How well do workers perform when they are being monitored (Chicago Tribune -April 4, 2016). “Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether,” says Bernstein. “Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable.”

To conduct his research, Bernstein embedded 5 Chinese-born Harvard undergrads into the lines of the world’s second largest mobile phone factory, located in China. The 5 worked, ate, and lived alongside their coworkers, who were not privy to the experiment. 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. But students noticed that when the workers were unobserved: “People either 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.” On the macro level, this reveals employees obey glove procedures only when they’re watched. On another level, 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.

Bernstein also noticed that factory teams worked faster–that is, they were more productive–when they were unobserved. Bernstein set up curtains around 4 of the factory’s 32 lines, shielding the workers on those lines from observation. “Over the next 5 months, to my surprise, the lines with curtains were 10-15% more productive than the rest,” he says. By contrast, the employees on regularly observed lines routinely hid process improvements from managers. The reason? One worker said 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.”

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Describe the 4 measures for measuring work (see Chapter 10).
  2. Do you think Bernstein’s conclusions relate to all fields?
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