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The Hawthorne Effect and the future leadership attributes required

The Hawthorne Effect was discovered because of research commissioned at a Western Electric parts factory in Hawthorne, Illinois. The study was commissioned to determine whether changing the lighting conditions in the factory would increase employee productivity and initial findings appeared to support the idea. However, researchers found that changing the lighting conditions to lower lighting also resulted in improved productivity. Further research found that any change in workplace conditions increased productivity because employees felt valued and believed that management was paying attention to them and their working conditions. Employees cherished the idea of being empowered and having an input in the operations of the company which contributed to the rise in productivity.
In the workplace, the Hawthorne Effect can explain how the more attention an employee receives from managers, coworkers, and customers, the higher the level of effort and employee productivity. Essentially, productivity increases when employees believe that they are valued.

The impact of the global pandemic has caused significant change in numerous workplaces resulting in employees being empowered and given more autonomy and the opportunity to contribute to the operations of the company.

With this increased perceived freedom, there has been an increase in productivity in the short term. Many of us welcomed the freedom to work by design and could customize our days to suite our personal needs which accommodated home schooling, childcare, cooking and cleaning. The benefit also included not commuting and employees welcomed the cost and time saving. For our working moms, working from home increased their productivity and they were happier employees and allocated some of the commuting time to work, increasing the number of hours worked. Although the working hours were extended, and people often worked seven days a week, the ability to live and enjoy the things most important to us made it all worthwhile.

Employees welcomed this new change as the model workplace of the future. One of the biggest factors influencing the positive working from home experience was the ability to “break free from working 9am-5pm and working a flexible schedule. For our executive placement team this involved starting your day at 3am to accommodate the load-shedding schedule, delivery on assignments and team member family commitments. With this freedom came a renewed sense of job satisfaction and work life balance. Although the working conditions had changed, productivity increased for those who were fortunate enough to be able to work from home and had the discipline to do so.

For some employees given the same freedoms their experience was challenging and a steep learning curve because of the environment in which they live. The impact of load shedding, access to data, access to space to work from home and internet connectivity made their experiences less positive. It was a stark reminder of the economic divide and an aide-memoire of the patriarchal society in which we live, where women assumed more of the childcare and home making responsibilities. These employees preferred to commute than work under such tough circumstances.

Productivity decreased in the short term for those who experienced these challenges but later increased because of a perceived sense of empowerment and contentment as they were also able to tailor make their work schedules. Employers provided the required assistance to ensure that employees could work effectively, and employees became more creative, innovative, and agile in their responses to client needs. These are some of the positive characteristics that can be harnessed from this period.

As a recruiter, I have also found that when working from home one tends to work longer hours as the ping from the laptop keeps calling you to respond to emails until late in the evening and sometimes the early hours of the morning. Despite these longer hour’s, employees achieved the work life balance that they had been longing for and employers realised that wellness was beyond value-added benefits and higher salaries.

Another benefit of working from home is that it has improved our digital skills and forced us to brush up on digital communication from video conferencing to MS Teams, Zoom etc. I had to do five onboarding presentations on MS Teams, and it does require more effort and takes some getting used to. So, it seems as though working from home has had numerous positive effects on employees but there has also been some unanticipated outcomes and a yearning for the office. I missed the tangible energy that one feels when working towards a deadline on a recruiting project in the office. The discussions and jokes often shared by my teammates.

The MS Teams and Zoom meetings are efficient but some of us are suffering from Zoom fatigue. Online meetings cannot replace the tacit knowledge, the energy in the room when you finally submit the proposal after hours of engaging and challenging each other’s ideas. The MS Teams meetings have also not replaced the impromptu meetings that one has in the corridor or small talk in the office that leads you to learn something new from a colleague. I love the energy in the office when we are working on diverse projects with tight deadlines. The excitement and passion are subdued in an online meeting.

However, some organisations have created a working handbook which has descriptions and is a central repository detailing the way the organisation works. All their employees are encouraged to contribute to it and update it as they work. Prior to meetings, organisers post agendas that link to the relevant sections to allow invitees to read background information and post questions.

Some of my clients have said that the remote work has resulted in them missing a sense of belonging. The team spirit is diluted. They have tried to rekindle this team spirit by implementing a mandatory full day at the office. I am not certain how effective this has been as those who work well remotely do not like being coerced into coming to the office. They view it as a punishment, and it has not yielded the desired result.

But given that working from home is the way of the future, organisations need to invest in fostering connection between employees as this is important for the long-term health of the team. Studies have shown that some level of live team interaction is vital to building and maintaining team chemistry. Therefore, organisations need to include opportunities for social interactions as frequently as possible. These interactions should have a positive effect and encourage participation. They can include biweekly or weekly team celebrations to recognise team members achievements or organisational achievements, monthly team building activities and monthly unstructured group social activities.

However, as an entrepreneur I am concerned about the client relationships and how the lockdown has affected these relationships. Virtual meetings are great but meeting clients over a cup of coffee is sorely missed. Working from home inhibits our ability to cultivate and grow these working relationships. For our team virtual meetings have impacted our ability to share tacit knowledge and personal information. The excitement of chasing a deadline as a team and working towards a common goal where we can feel the movement in the engine room has been muted or different.

Those employees that have enjoyed working from home and are productive, would like to continue to work from home. For those who do not have the infrastructure or are continuously disrupted by the reality of load-shedding, remote work is a possibility but remains a big challenge. We currently have a hybrid model with both onsite and remote work. It seems to have worked for the medium term with our own lessons learnt.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to work from home, but I also enjoy working in the office and engaging with my team members. The hybrid model works for me because I enjoy engaging with my colleagues. The bottom line is whatever works for your organisation, and employees will be determined by whether your organisation has been able to remain productive and reach its set goals and objectives regardless of where your team is based. The jury is still out on whether working from home can sustain the levels of productivity. But it seems that changing up things a bit does have a positive effect on employees in the short term.

About the author

Lucia Mabasa is the managing director of Pinpoint One Human Resources.
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