The Hawthorne Effect: Why Employers Need To Be Cautious In Post-Pandemic Planning

During the 1920s and 1930s a group of researchers began a series of industrial experiments in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago. The research comprised several studies that tested the impact of changes in work structures on employee productivity.

The researchers looked to see whether workers would increase effort when physical factors like room lighting was changed. During the study, employee productivity improved both when the lighting was increased and when it was decreased. However, productivity decreased as soon as the study ended.

Other complementary experiments such as the effect of changes in working hours and work breaks also resulted in increased productivity, but again, this declined after the conclusion of the study. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that employees were actually responding to the direct attention they were getting from the researchers and supervisors during the study, rather than to any changes in the environmental variables.

The idea that merely consulting workers and slightly adjusting their conditions, without meaningfully changing anything, might make them more efficient and productive became known as the “Hawthorne effect” and entered the lore of leadership, HR and management BS. I say BS, as later research suggests that many of the original claims made about the effect are overstated.

That said – the central point is valid – the Hawthorne effect remains a useful term for referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment.

When you know you’re being observed, you behave differently.

It’s worth remembering this as employers, pundits, and even Governments scramble to draw conclusions from the Mass Remote Work Experiment.

First of all , it was an experiment only in the loosest sense. As Bryan Lufkin writes, ‘we weren’t just working from home – we were working from home during a pandemic. The experiment began almost overnight, with minimal preparation or support. We worked at our kitchen tables, sometimes watching our children, as we sheltered from a virus. Everyone was in the same boat, working remotely without choice.’

I’d disagree that everyone was in the same boat, the pandemic has neatly illustrated the divides that cross our country. Even at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, only 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home. And that figure doesn’t tell the whole story as there’s a huge regional disparity, for instance 71% of workers in Richmond upon Thames did some work from home in 2020, in Blackpool: just 14%.

And from this flawed experiment, huge conclusions are being drawn.

Ministers and centre right commentators have suggested it’s time to get everyone back to the office – even suggesting that those who want to continue working from home make a salary sacrifice for the continued benefit.

The liberal left have responded with, um, exactly the same proposal – with Google employees potentially seeing their pay cut if they switch to working from home permanently in the wake of the pandemic.

The thinking behind all this seems to be based upon an ideological position that those working from home are getting a ‘better deal’ that now needs recalibrating in their overall package. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with what you’d think employers would be more bothered about: productivity.

In an interesting piece that quickly goes down a dead end, Luay Rahil makes the point that the argument that “I’m more productive at home” isn’t always a good one. We should stop using an economic formula (productivity) to solve the office vs. home problem. It is a sociological issue (about collaboration, teamwork, belonging) and not a purely economic issue.

This is a point worth exploring in any discussion about the future of work. For years, people have predicted that the future of knowledge work would be remote and distributed, but rarely have we focused on what we mean by productive and valuable work, let alone how we measure it. For people like me, whose work is often hard to categorise and assess the value of, this is a much more interesting discussion than when and where that work is done. Is the work you are producing of value, does it make the world a bit of a better place, and will someone pay you for it?

Whatever that work is the post-pandemic fundamentals will largely remain the same: people will always need to find ways of collaborating and problem-solving together.

There IS something to explore about finding the sweet spot that works for the individual, the team AND the wider collective but the one thing I’m certain of is the answer won’t be “now, get back to the office”.

In truth, this isn’t the end of the minimum office experiment but its natural beginning.

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

Enlightened employers will let their employees experiment with ways of working that look after people, the planet and productivity, in ways we couldn’t imagine pre-pandemic.

The less enlightened will continue to see their workers as lab rats to be observed, experimented upon and measured. Rewarding them for good behaviour.


Image by andreas N from Pixabay

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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