The Hawthorne Effect is the Simplest Productivity Hack You Never Heard of

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By Nadya Agrawal

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Something as simple as asking your team how their day’s going can deliver a huge lift to productivity in the workplace. Sound too good to be true? Science backs it up.

productivity hack light bulb

This is something psychologist Elton Mayo, pioneer of organizational theory, discovered by studying American factory workers in the ’30s.

The experiment was initially set up to see which factory conditions make workers most productive. The researchers began by brightening the factory light, which increased productivity. But once they dimmed the light, productivity rose again. They soon realized that it didn’t matter what the change was—productivity would rise when any change would be made to the work environment. Employees felt like the managers cared about them and their work environments, so they worked harder.

This phenomenon was dubbed “the Hawthorne Effect.” It has repeatedly popped up in other studies over the past 80 years, proving that the act of caring can boost productivity in almost any setting—especially the workplace. Here’s how to use the Hawthorne Effect to hack your office’s productivity and create a culture of caring.

Employees Want a Say

Even the best managers can operate under false assumption about how their employees prefer to work. They assume that they know best, and that their policies are already inclusive and flexible. But the Hawthorne Effect suggests otherwise. It’s more important that you show that you’re invested in employee happiness, than make “good” decisions on your employees’ behalves.

Show your employees you care by actually listening to how they work best. You can do that by bringing them into the conversation about their own work and accommodate their preferences.

The Tools For Caring

When you have just a few people in your company, you can just have 1:1s with all your employees to learn about their ideal work environment. But as your team grows, meetings become too disruptive and it becomes hard to give everyone the kind of personal attention that’s necessary for employees to feel cared about.

The trick is to open up as many channels of communication as possible, in order to make gathering feedback easy. Here are just a few tools to make that possible:

  • Trello: This software is usually used as a light-weight project management tool, but you can also use it to locate and address any internal issues your team might experience. Start a board just for complaints or suggestions and deal with them one at a time.
  • Direct Messaging: Whether you use Google Hangouts, Slack, or HipChat, make sure that you’re accessible to your employees via DM. Encourage team members—whether they’re remote or in-house—to come to you with any problems, or point out potential inefficiencies in your work process. You can even check in occasionally with a “how are you?” to set the stage for open communication.
  • I Done This 2.0: We built the new version of I Done This to facilitate communication between team members and managers. Our blocker tool lets employees call out anything that may keep them from being productive.

Once you get feedback, make sure that you act on it and let your employees know. Send around weekly memos and show the progress the team is making towards having a happier, more productive work environment.

No Employee is an Island

Your team members are all well-oiled parts of a larger machine. And like every gear and crank, they need to be connected to those around them. A gear doesn’t function when it’s turning on its own. As a manager, you can’t make workplace changes effective unless your team members can enjoy them together.

After reflecting on his study, Mayo wrote, “The working group as a whole actually determined the output of individual workers by reference to a standard that represented the group conception (rather than management’s) of a fair day’s work. This standard was rarely, if ever, in accord with the standards of the efficiency engineers.”

Basically, social support systems determined workers’ productivity. When productivity rose, it rose for everyone. And when it fell, it was because group morale fell. The study proved employees need to feel connected to their colleagues in order to be productive.

How to Un-Isolate Your Employees

Your employees need to form a relationship with each other over something beyond work. Constantly discussing projects doesn’t yield the deeper connections necessary to create a support system.

Slack is a chatroom app that allows employees to both talk about work and have fun with their colleagues. Here are some key integrations to foster friendly conversation between your employees:

  • Giphy allows users to call up a random gif on command. This integration keeps the conversation light and errs on the side of ridiculous.
  • Lunch Train organizes lunch orders. Your employees may think they’re just signing up for their cuisine of choice, but Lunch Train is sneakily roping people together for a group lunch.
  • Digg pulls up trending articles on given topics when triggered. Have them sent directly to your #Watercooler channel so employees can discuss the day’s headlines.

When your employees feel like they have friends at work, they are happier. And happier workers are more productive.

It Really Is as Simple as Asking the Right Question

Morale in the workplace is built on a foundation of confidence. Encouraging your employees and accommodating their needs assures them that they have an important part to play in the work they’re doing.

“Making each individual feel an integral part of the group” was critical to the results of the Hawthorne study, social scientist and management theorist Fritz Roethlisberger wrote. Demonstrating that you care about your employees and forming connections among them is all about making each individual feel valuable. When they feel valuable, they want to work harder.

So, yes, even just asking your employees how they’re feeling about their work can encourage them to work better. It’s a simple productivity hack, backed by science, and you can start cashing in on it right now.


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