How To Keep Workers Working

By Pamela A. Scott

Last week a client asked for ideas on how to handle her project team. Her team is working on a high profile project with tight deadlines. My client, the project manager, has to travel routinely for project team meetings at other sites. She has learned that when she is not there, her staff eases up in their drive to get work done. She isn’t being critical—they work hard and do good work. She was just stymied in why they do that and what she can do about it.

My son, a psych major, equates it to when you have a substitute teacher. Kids act up. The pressure to perform is not as great with a substitute as with their regular teacher.

What’s at play here is the reverse of the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect says that productivity increases when workers know they are being observed. So, when the boss is away, the work pace slows down. It is natural.

Two key learning points come to mind here.

1. Ideas to Keep ‘em Going

If you the boss want to keep the pace going when you aren’t there, designate a second-in-command to check in with folks. The key is for your staff to know that they are being observed even though you aren’t there. You could rotate this role among the staff, so no one appears to be special. This is not micromanaging—it’s simply playing to human behavior.

Another suggestion is to change up your schedule so that you are out of the office on different days, not always the same days. For example, if you routinely meet with clients on Tuesdays and Thursdays, switch your appointments around some. Then staff won’t get lackadaisical about Tuesdays and Thursdays, because you just might be there.

2. Someone at the Top Cares

The Hawthorne Effect studies have documented that people perform better when someone is watching them. People today spend a lot of time at work. They require a sense of belonging, of being something bigger than just themselves. When they are part of something bigger, they are more effective.

While it may sound too warm and fuzzy, realize that when you pay attention to people, they do a better job. That doesn’t give you permission to micromanage them. Just acknowledge and observe them.


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