When workers feel watched

Can too much workplace transparency compromise innovation, creativity?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/03/2014

Transparency is often lauded as an organizational virtue, boasting benefits such as enhanced productivity, problem-solving and collaboration.

But when does a transparent workplace cross the line into intrusiveness? And how can transparency be balanced with employees’ needs for privacy and control?

It’s a paradox, according to Ethan Bernstein, assistant professor of leadership and organizational behaviour at the Harvard Business School in Boston.

“For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

When people are being watched, they change their behaviour — often in ways that are counterproductive at work, he said.

“(In the science of management), we’ve assumed that people to some extent are like machines. If we could just understand more about what they’re doing — if we could observe them more clearly — then we could do more to (learn), we could do more to avoid mistakes... We forget that, unlike machines, human beings change their behaviour when they’re watched,” he said.

“When we’re thinking about looking in from the outside of organizations, we talk about transparency and we want as much of it as possible. But when we’re talking about being observed, we use the word ‘privacy.’ And I think that sort of reflects our natural desire to have a certain degree of unobserved activity in our work lives, as well as our personal lives.”

Employers generally understand that behaviour changes when it’s observed — that’s why certain tools, such as surveillance or Internet monitoring, are used. But it’s not just negative behaviours (like slacking off) that can be altered when employees are put under the microscope. Positive behaviours, such as creativity and innovation, can be stifled as well, said Bernstein.

“There are lots of ways in our daily work lives where we actually want to try something, experiment with it, muddle a bit, tinker before we actually have people see it,” he said. “That creative or tinkering process requires (the sense that) ‘It’s just me right now.’”

Open space

One way many organizations have tried to introduce more transparency is by opening up the workspace itself, using open office plans, said Bernstein.

But there has to be a balancing act between the shared and private space, said Matthew Davis, lecturer at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and an expert on the impacts of open offices.

Quicker communication, innovation and lower costs are tempered by potential negative impacts on productivity when employees feel they don’t have any quiet or private space, he said.

“When people are doing particularly demanding work, that can impact on their performance,” he said, citing interruptions such as noise, conversations and visual distractions.

There’s also the concern that professional and interpersonal relationships can be hampered when people feel their conversations and interactions are “on display,” he said.

“You see some mixed evidence in terms of friendship and stronger ties. So in some circumstances… you don’t have the same level of privacy, so it’s hard to really get to know people if you’re always (concerned) you’ll be overheard,” he said, adding that it can create some degree of self-censorship.

“It’s so much more public... Also, sometimes we see a little bit less in terms of feedback from managers because, again, you don’t have that confidentiality there.”

You can’t have an open plan without some private space built in as well, said Steve Cascone, vice-president and design principal at Mayhew in Toronto.

“If you don’t have those spaces, the overall space won’t work. It won’t be effective,” he said. “When I’m sitting out in an open plan space, what I’m doing quite often is things that don’t require a lot of concentration, so responding to emails, maybe having phone calls that are not considered confidential… collaborating.

“(But) when I do need to have that sort of heads-down, concentrated work, I truly can’t do it in that space. So I have to have other spaces I can go to.”

Open data

Another avenue for workplace transparency is around data — monitoring employees’ email, Internet browsing, even their movements during the day, said Bernstein.

As technology continues to advance, there are endless and increasingly complex methods of monitoring employees, said Andrew Stevens, assistant professor in the faculty of business administration at the University of Regina.

“As workplaces become more technologically enabled, the types of technology used to surveil and monitor become more embedded in (our) day-to-day lives,” he said.

“So, for instance, we could see the standard CCTV camera that would look at work stations, bank tellers, in and around buildings for the safety of employees and the general public; we have seen a very rapid growth in the development of radio frequency ID to track the location of trucks and even employees who have these pieces of equipment embedded in their clothing around warehouses, for instance. Monitoring has really developed with computerization.”

The best way to capture this technology is to understand it as ubiquitous, meaning it is everywhere in our daily lives and everywhere in the workplace, said Stevens. But near-constant monitoring can have a complex impact on employees.

“How it affects the employees is going to depend on the type of work that they’re doing, the type of atmosphere in which they’re working, the nature of employment relations or labour relations. We know that, depending on the workplace, it can lead to some certain psychological stresses and impairments. It can lead to increased anxiety, it can lead to subsequently mental and physical health issues, but that’s going to depend on the purpose and the nature of the relationship that already exists.”

Some employees might respond by changing their patterns of behaviour, but others may actively resist.

“It’s not so much that they’re trying to spite employers but rather they’re trying to make their lives bearable. So there’s a (sentiment) in some workplaces that surveillance is quite malicious and it’s overbearing, and they try to circumvent it in ways that make the workplace more human… just to carve out their own space in the workplace, outside of management’s gaze,” he said.

Creating a balance

So how can employers create the right balance between transparency and privacy? In general, it’s about creating effective “zones” of privacy, said Bernstein. One way to do that is by thinking carefully about how teams are designed and how many people we need to be “performing” for at a given time, he said.

“Distraction can take over when you have too many people in sight. And that’s not just distraction but also this desire to perform as people expect, so you don’t draw additional attention and distract them from what they’re doing — as opposed to when you have a small enough group and you actually feel comfortable that if someone sees you doing things differently, you can explain what you’re doing and sort of have that conversation that might be actually valuable for productivity,” said Bernstein.

A second kind of privacy is creating a boundary between feedback and evaluation — so developmental feedback should not necessarily factor into how employees are evaluated.

“That way, people feel like they can be open in conversations that are helping them improve themselves,” he said.

“That is actually getting harder to do. The more open work environments are — be that lines of sight or be that data that sort of follows us everywhere — it’s actually getting more and more common that our perceptions of peoples’ performance is based on everything that we see and, therefore, everything that they do, because we see everything.”

There should also be boundaries between “improvement rights” and “decision rights,” so if you’re trying to improve on your own work processes, you should have the right to do so without necessarily having to go to some decision-maker to get permission.

The idea is not to minimize transparency, said Bernstein.

“I’m not advocating against transparency; if anything, I’m suggesting that because people can become less transparent in more transparent environments, we might achieve a greater level of transparency if we think deeply about how long and what kind of boundaries we provide for people.”

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