It’s always fun proving an old adage wrong—for decades, the fad of the cubicle owed its rise to the concept that constant oversight of employees by their managers increased productivity—that workers needed to be reminded that they were at work and accountable for their time, in order to be kept honest, and to stop from slacking off. However, there’s mounting practical and theoretical evidence to the contrary, as evidenced in the rapidly-shifting workplace environments of many a startup.
As managers and entrepreneurs continue their never-ending quest for increased productivity and greater efficiency from employees, many traditional aspects of the supervisor-worker relationship have been called into question. More and more, companies are demonstrating that they can operate cohesively even when workers work from home, or even from other countries. One such example of this is WordPress: as reported by Quartz, Automattic’s (the company behind WordPress) San Francisco office “is nearly always close to empty”. Employees communicate with each other through online networks, and meet up in person every couple of months.
Giving employees autonomy is simply a method of empowerment. As explained by Heidi Grant Halvorson, “When people feel a sense of autonomy — when they have some say in what they do and how they do it — they naturally find whatever they are doing to be much more interesting (autonomy, as it happens, increases creativity, too).”
This phenomena was recently investigated in a 2012 Harvard study by Ethan Bernstein, which led Bernstein to coin the term “the Transparency Paradox”, described as the observation that:
“…maintaining observability of workers may counterintuitively reduce their performance by inducing those being observed to conceal their activities through codes and other costly means; conversely, creating zones of privacy may, under certain conditions, increase performance.”
Bernstein observed employees at the second-largest mobile phone factory in the world, where modern factories have evolved to “provide near-perfect observability of the actions and performance of every employee, line, and function. He found that where there is transparency in that workers know they’re being watched, they simply spend more time and energy of “the performance” of appearing to be an efficient worker.
While many workers at the factory had found ways to improve the company’s dictated processes and methods, they consciously hid them from disapproving management who demanded things be done by the book. As a result, whenever a factory line was being observed, productivity dropped as workers spent more time “performing” the routine in the way that management preferred.
Anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment can relate to what Bernstein has observed with the transparency paradox: that co-worker whose main method of demonstrating their commitment to the company is by turning up early, leaving after everyone else, and doing a whole lot of not-much-else in-between. Or the co-worker who spends time constantly group cc’ing everyone in an attempt to demonstrate how busy they are. Neither performance ever addresses the issue of whether the worker is doing great work—in fact, they’re intended to dodge the question entirely.
As someone who previously worked in a corporate firm, I was told by a higher-up that “sometimes, it’s just about being seen”. At the time, this smacked of inefficiency to me, though I knew it was a result of the ingrained culture of such large organizations. And while smaller companies undoubtedly have more flexibility to experiment with these sort of processes before they become established as a “workplace culture”, hopefully success stories like those of Automattic trickle up to larger companies, and that employees are no longer chained to their desks when their time could spent being more productive, and contributing more to their employer. It’s a win-win.