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Keeping an eye on the psychological roots of productivity and wellbeing

One of the most famous and (literally) illuminating series of experiments into workplace productivity is nearly one hundred years old. Yet it continues to influence the way we think because it taps into an eternal truth about human beings. Namely that we are influenced as much by the kinds of attention we are paid by others as we are by their actions and our surroundings. Its narrative touches on various other truths too, including our need to keep our eyes open for eureka moments and the joy of serendipity. 

The research carried out at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago from 1924 set out to investigate a proposed link between levels of light, wellbeing and productivity in the factory. What the researchers found was indeed an increase in productivity which seemed to support their hypothesis. They appeared to have proof that an increase in illumination improved productivity levels.

But things were clearly a bit more complex than that. Subsequent experiments at the same site on the effects of changes like maintaining a clean environment, clearing floors of obstacles, and even relocating workstations  also yielded increases in productivity. It was also discovered that productivity fell back to some degree at the end of the experiments, and so a second interpretation was postulated; the workers were not merely responding to better conditions but also to the experiment itself. They liked the attention on them and their wellbeing as well as the novelty of the new conditions. The Hawthorne Effect was born.

The idea has been critiqued down the years and is still debated to this day. To some of its critics the experiments are little more than a series of anecdotes supporting an idea that has taken on a life of its own, unmoored from the data. But even that may offer more evidence for its truth. We know instinctively that we behave differently when we are being observed. It’s perhaps why one of the few ideas from quantum theory to gain a hold on the public imagination is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. A commonly held but slightly askew interpretation of the Principle is that ‘the act of observation changes the nature of the object being observed’.


Challenging scientific management

Whatever interpretation you have of the experiments, there is also no doubt that they struck the first significant blows against the orthodoxy of scientific management popularised by an engineer and factory manager named Frederick Winslow Taylor. His 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management set out the idea that work should be analysed to establish the most efficient way of doing it, the right person to do that work must be chosen and managers are there to make sure that it all goes to plan. It viewed clerical work as analogous to factory work. Knowledge work barely came into it.

Underlying Taylor’s ideas was a desire to do away with not putting enough effort into a job, something he referred to as ‘soldiering’. He had a life-long obsession with efficiency and, because he believed that unmanaged groups of people would develop peer-led bad habits such as something he called ‘natural laziness’, he frequently discouraged workers from operating in teams of more than four. He also had very fixed ideas about what he meant by the right people for jobs. ‘One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron,’ he wrote, ‘is that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make up the ox than any other type.’

Even for the times, this language didn’t go down well. He not only fell out with other managers, workers in his steel works broke their machines in an attempt to show their disgust at the new methods. It took three years of persistence and fines to bend them to his will.

This should have been a clear sign that people are not hardwired to act in such mechanical ways. The Hawthorne experiments showed that the physical environment has an effect on productivity, that people like to engage with their work, and also know that their employers are paying attention to them and their wellbeing. The better lighting in the experiment increased productivity in the most fundamental sense, but there was a more complex process going on than one of basic cause and effect. The lighting itself was not enough to explain the increases in productivity without also taking into account the management of the process and the focus on the individual.

This same complex relationship between design and management characterises the ongoing debate about productivity in the workplace. It seems obvious that the creation of an enlightened working culture coupled with the right physical design and management of a workplace has an impact on the safety, productivity and wellbeing of the people who work in it. The best results dependent on understanding the complex interplay of the physical and psychological factors that help people be more productive and healthier in the workplace.

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