14 January, 2021

Improving employee engagement using the ‘Hawthorne Effect’

The Hawthorne effect is a theory derived from a pioneering multi-disciplinary research study conducted by Elton Mayo, a renowned sociologist and his associates in the late 1920s and early 1930s. During that era, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Workers were treated as nothing more than machines, who were assumed to work purely for financial incentives. However, the times also gave rise to labor unions and there was increased media scrutiny on the poor working conditions experienced by industrial workers. Organizations, therefore, began to look into improving their corporate images and investigating possible ways to reduce employee dissatisfaction and turnover. Among these organizations was Western Electric, a manufacturing firm headquartered out of Hawthorne, Chicago.  They began incorporating subtle changes into their workplace practices like changes in floor lighting, work shifts and breaks, introduction of informal interviews etc. With every change, even if it included reverting to the default settings, they were puzzled to see productivity soar. Simply put, the Hawthorne effect finds that employee behavior and thereby performance, changes in response to being observed.

These findings are quite relevant even in today’s modern workplaces. Often, organizations focus purely on financial incentives or token gifts/appreciation to improve employee and partner engagement. Viewing employees as only financially driven individuals devoid of relational needs can be narrow sighted and prevent the management from understanding what really drives them to stay with an organization. The workers at the Western Electric factory felt cared for, valued and heard through the people-focused actions of the firm which sought to understand, rather than assume, how and why they work. Creating an open work culture where employees can express their opinions, needs and feel encouraged to bond with each other results in improved motivation and work performance. Going back to our example, the Hawthorne experiments also showed the importance of inclusion and team work. The scholars had picked 6 women of a department to work in a separate room, as part of a separate study. In the test room, the women felt freer to interact and bond with each other more than they did on the factory floor. As a result, their work performance surpassed that of any other team/department in the plant. While today’s more gender-balanced workplaces do not call for such extreme measures to be adopted, the idea of bringing together forums of like-minded peers to discuss similar interests, challenges etc. satisfies an individual employee’s ‘drive to bond’.

The Hawthorne studies form the tenets of modern management and look at employees in a social context. For organizations today, they serve as an important reminder of keeping employees engaged through:

Careful Listening

Employee listening is crucial to understanding employee behavior and the possible changes that can improve their morale and increase their loyalty. Surveys and other listening tools on an employee engagement platform can provide structured insights for the management to act upon.

Ongoing Performance Reviews

A 365 day performance feedback module can be extremely useful in providing prompt, ongoing feedback to employees, making them feel like their work matters and they are valued.

Employee Recognition

The best way to gratify employees is to share a word of appreciation for a job well done, through an employee appreciation tool, which makes the recognition formal, public and transparent, while creating an accessible ‘log of compliments’ for the employee

Team Bonding

A single, unifying work purpose and strong allegiance to the team are driving factors for performance, retention and in turn, an organization’s profits. Strengthen them by encouraging virtual team activities and peer-to-peer recognition modules.

The industrial revolution had stripped society of strong communal relations and shifted the source of bonding and relationships to the workplace about a century ago. Today, COVID-19 has shifted workplace dynamics yet again. This time, the challenge for organizations is to show their employees that work culture resides with the people, not a physical space, and that team relations still matter. Competitive organizations will take this into cognizance while planning a powerful virtual employee experience in today’s stress-ridden workplaces using an effective employee engagement software.