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Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Surveilance
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Surveillance Versus Supervision in the Workplace
August 28, 2013
/New York Times/ reporter Steve Lohr recently reported on a new
that was tested in almost 400 restaurants throughout the U.S. Three
researchers measured the impact of software that monitors employee-level
theft, before and after the new surveillance technology was installed.
In the restaurant industry, analysts estimate the losses from employee
theft at one percent of revenue, a significant number given the low
margins at which restaurants operate. Most of the restaurant industry
pay low wages to servers, who depend on tips. Employee turnover is high.
In that environment, a certain amount of theft has long been regarded as
a normal part of the business.
But this new monitoring software can track all transactions and detect
suspicious patterns. The savings from the theft alerts themselves were
modest ? $108 a week per restaurant. However, after installing the
monitoring software, the revenue per restaurant increased by almost
$3,000 a week, or about 7 percent.
The impact of the software, the researchers say, came not from firing
workers engaged in theft, but mostly from their changed behavior.
Knowing they were being monitored, the servers worked harder to satisfy
customers, boost restaurant revenue and boosts tips for themselves. The
same people who were stealing from their employers became ?partners?
with their employers instead.
This research brings to mind a remarkable study of people?s inclination
to ?feed the kitty? at an office coffee station that was run on the
honor system. People who made themselves coffee or tea were supposed to
put an appropriate amount of money for restocking supplies into a cup.
There was a nature photograph hanging on the wall above the money cup,
and in the study, the experimenters replaced that photo with a photo of
a pair of eyes.
For several weeks, a week of ?nature? alternated with a week of ?eyes.?
And it turned out that when people were being ?watched? by those
photographic eyes, contributions to the kitty about doubled. People
behave better when they?re being watched than when they?re not.
In his article, Lohr points out that ?in human resources, much emphasis
is placed on employee selection: if you pick the right people, they will
do the right thing. Instead, this research suggests that the
surveillance effect on employee behavior is striking.?
Is the implication here that micro-surveillance is the management tool
of the future? Not so fast.
Consider a contrasting example, reported by Elise Hu for NPR
Hu tells us that the hierarchical hassles of the modern workplace are
starting to fade, with a cultural move toward flat or ?bossless?
offices. Hu describes a tech company, Menlo, in Ann Arbor, Mich., where
there are two co-founders and a CEO, but the team takes charge of
budgeting, hiring, firing and making decisions on how to serve the
?If you look at a baseball team in the field, no one would say, hey who
does the pitcher report to, who does the catcher report to? People who
really understand baseball would say, well, they have a role to play but
their real purpose is to win the game. To be on the field with each
other and trust each other to know how to play,? says Rich Sheridan, who
co-founded Menlo in 2002.
Sheridan says eliminating layers of management can lead to faster
decision-making ? and more important, motivated and empowered employees.
At Menlo, the whole office, or sometimes subcommittees, decide who gets
hired and who gets fired. Promotions, raises and budgeting are all
decided by the team. The company's emphasis on transparency extends to
details like the budget, which is posted on the wall for everyone to see.
?[Tech] industries are just unstable, rapidly changing, and they are
trying to harness creativity and innovation. So it is that speed of the
technology environment that has prompted organizations to rethink the
way they structure the organization,? says Stephen Courtright, a Texas
A&M business professor.
Courtright says that ?in a flat organization, moving up the chain of
command is not the reward for performing well, because in a flat
organization there's not a big chain of command to climb up. Basically
the reward in a flat organization is being able to work on new and
challenging creative tasks.?
So which way should we go: increased surveillance or increased autonomy?
The answer, I think, is that it depends. When your workforce is just in
it for the money, as are their managers, then you can expect people to
try to get as much as possible by doing as little as possible.
Surveillance may be the way to go.
But if your workforce is committed to finding meaning and engagement in
their work, and your entire organization has a mission to solve problems
and improve lives, surveillance will surely be counterproductive. Not
only will it inhibit flexibility and creativity, but it will suggest a
lack of trust that will surely erode the spirit of the organization.
I bet I know what you?re thinking. The ?knowledge class? ? the ?creative
class? ? have flat organizational structures that display trust and
encourage autonomy. But for workers who are just putting in time for the
paycheck, the more surveillance, the better. Sounds sensible, but it
Many years ago I did research with management expert Amy Wrzesniewski
now at Yale, and other collaborators. In that research, we showed that
among people doing the very same job, some regarded it as just a ?job,?
some regarded it as a ?career,? with their eyes on advancement, and some
regarded it as a ?calling.?
Those whose work was a calling were always asking themselves what they
could do better, and how they could help achieve the overall aims of the
organization, whether or not it was a part of their job description.
Same job, but very different orientation to it.
Amy went on to study people like hospital janitors who do ?dirty work?
and reside at the very bottom of the organizational hierarchy. Here,
too, she found plenty of janitors who regarded their work as a calling.
They did whatever they could to keep patients safe and comfortable and
their families at ease. These people did many things in the course of a
day that were not part of their job descriptions.
You can bet that with the kind of surveillance software now being
implemented in restaurants, this ?extra-curricular? activity would stop,
and the hospitals in which they worked would be much the worse as a result.
So the quick solution to the problem of an unmotivated work force may be
surveillance. How long any surveillance will be effective will depend on
the ingenuity of workers as they try to evade it. The slow solution is
to restructure what you do so that the people who work for you want to
do an excellent job. I think there are few work settings in which the
slow route isn?t better in the long term than the fast one.
Does this mean I?m advocating flat organizations in which everyone is
her own boss? By no means. I think most work requires supervision. But
supervision is different from surveillance.
There are two different reasons to keep an eye on your employees. One is
to make sure they are working hard ? to motivate them. The other is to
make sure they?re working smart ? to correct their mistakes and mentor
them. Wise, mentoring supervision is needed to turn motivated workers
into smart, motivated workers. And flat organizations are probably not
the best way to achieve this result.
So employees need oversight. Not too little, like the flat organization,
and not too much, like the surveilled organization. A few years ago,
Adam Grant and I published
a paper called ?Too Much of a Good Thing
,? in which we argued that there
are many situations and many traits of character where what is needed is
a moderate amount?not to much and not too little. This is true of
motivation, creativity, independence, team coordination, and even happiness.
What I?m suggesting is that it is also true of oversight. We don?t want
complete autonomy in our organizations. And we also don?t want NSA-style
surveillance. What we want is empathetic, mentoring supervision. And we
want to create organizations in which our task as a manager is to make
sure people are doing their jobs right, rather than having to make sure
that they?re doing their jobs at all.