Deskless Work

The Hawthorne Effect: Boosting Employee Productivity

Bryan Herijanto

“Zeus” sounds like a godly, powerful nickname, but you don’t want someone nicknamed Zeus at your workplace. 

This acronym stands for “Zero Effort Unless Supervised,” and it does sound funny until you’re the one forced to share the workload with a Zeus. 

The Hawthorne effect prevents even the lazy God of thunder from slacking at work! 

You’ve probably seen the Hawthorne effect at play but were unaware people behave better just because they aren’t alone. 

One endearing example is waiting patiently to cross the street correctly when small children are around, knowing you would definitely jaywalk if you were alone.

It was even observed in medical personnel: one research showed a 55% increase in hand-washing compliance when staff members knew they were studied!

Prevalent in business and science alike, the Hawthorne effect is well worth exploring and using to your advantage. First spotted a hundred years ago, this phenomenon can help increase employee productivity, decrease the number of workplace mistakes, and build a better workplace culture for both deskless and office organisations. 

In this article, we’ll explain the origins and meaning of the Hawthorne effects, its positive and negative effects in the workplace, and how to use its benefits to empower your frontline staff.

What Is the Hawthorne Effect?

The Hawthorne effect is a phenomenon in which people tend to modify their behaviour depending on whether their actions are observed or not. 

The Origins and Research of the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect derives its name from the Hawthorne Works telephone manufacturing plant that was located in Cicero, Illinois.

From 1924 to 1932, Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo and his assistant Fritz J. Roethlisberger conducted more than 20,000 employee interviews and a series of experiments to better understand the factors contributing to employee productivity.

Conditions such as lighting, working hours, breaks, and catering were varied during the research. Upon changes made, the productivity increased, but as soon as the study ended, workers’ productivity rates dropped again — and it didn’t matter whether the premises were better or worse lit.

Mayo concluded that the positive changes resulted from workers being aware their work was under observation, and researchers showed interest in them.

Using the Hawthorne Effect to Your Advantage

To reiterate — the two main productivity drivers for the observed workers were:

  • The knowledge that they’re being watched, and that their output is measured and compared;
  • Someone showing interest in their well-being by adjusting the working conditions to create the perfect working atmosphere — tweaking the lights, break time, etc.

One may even conclude that the Hawthorne effect paved the way for what we today know as employee engagement activities

Other benefits of this phenomenon include:

  • Productivity and morale boost;
  • Instilling accountability;
  • Teamwork and solidarity enhancement;
  • Preventing workplace mistakes;
  • Finding opportunities for improvement.

Misapplication of the Hawthorne Effect: What Can Go Wrong?

Some managers and supervisors insist on being present and monitoring what’s going on at all times, thinking it will help bridge the customer experience gap.

However, there are several ways in which attempting to use the Hawthorne effect can backfire and create a toxic workplace. 

Suppose you fail to honour the “showing interest in their work and well-being” element and double down on employee monitoring. In that case, it may appear as a severe lack of trust or an attempt to harass/exert revenge on staff members. Such issues include:

  • Surveillance bordering on spying — Some managers install cameras, work trackers, and listening devices to monitor the workspace overtly. Others go as far as to plant an undercover worker or install tracking devices. 
  • Micromanagement — The managers who over-manage people and insist everything be done their way don’t achieve the good results they strive for. Open feedback loops that don’t spare the higher-ups are a great way to bring supervisor-staff relations back to normal and facilitate better workplace relationships.

Apply the Hawthorne effect wrong, and you’ll cause hypervigilance, anxiety, and tension in the workplace. 

In some instances, it collides with the GDPR or other labour laws and may even cause a lawsuit (see Grand Chamber judgment Barbulescu v. Romania - monitoring of an employee’s electronic communications).

Applying the Hawthorne Effect in a Deskless Workplace

Luckily, the proper application of the Hawthorne effect is pretty easy and especially beneficial to deskless workplaces:

  • Creating a thorough onboarding program for deskless staff. Observe what causes the most friction for your new hires even when they’re doing their best, and use that knowledge to improve your onboarding programs. 
  • Observing how they adjust to their new role. Employees need their supervisors the most during their first weeks at the new position. Having someone to rely on in the first days will help them work more confidently, knowing someone experienced has their back and is there to help and advise when needed. With self-assurance, they’ll make fewer mistakes and enjoy the work more.
  • Helping team members adopt important rules. Remember that hand-washing example from the intro? Having a more present manager will guarantee the staff does everything correctly — which is especially important in health, food, and other industries where good hygiene and established processes are essential.
  • Enhancing employee engagement. With increased productivity, more careful work, and total mental and physical presence, employee engagement is bound to grow.

Enhance the Hawthorne Effect With Mercu

Mercu is an entirely chat-based platform that requires no additional onboarding. 

It is well-equipped with features that highlight the best of the Hawthorne effect:

  • Automated hiring and onboarding workflows — Mercu lets the HR pros be present even when they’re far from their deskless coworkers. Instant messaging platform eliminates the chance for mistakes and provides guidance 24/7.
  • Continuous, bite-sized learning — By only having WhatsApp (or another preferred chat app) installed on their work phones, your staff can learn from engaging, bite-sized knowledge resources that take little time from team members’ hands but are still efficient.
  • Taking care of compliance — From quizzing the food safety standards to regular compliance training, Mercu lets you create a custom questionnaire for things that matter the most.

Let us show you everything you can do with Mercu and re-engage your frontline staff!

A high-volume hiring experience that your recruiters and candidates will thank you for.

Mercu Hire automates repetitive and time-consuming tasks when hiring frontline staff: Interview scheduling, interview reminders, and candidate questions. All while delivering the most engaging candidate experience available on the market.