Electronic monitoring in the workplace
Polly A. Phipps
The use of electronic observation to monitor performance is a growing reality for workers who perform repetitive tasks; and some predict that professional and managerial workers will be similarly observed in the future. According to John R. Aiello and Kathryn J. Kolb, writing in the 1995 Journal of Applied Psychology Vol. 80), research studies link electronic monitoring with increased stress, decreased job satisfaction, feelings of social isolation, and belief that quantity is more important than quality. The increased stress is often attributed to changes in job design, increases in workload, loss of control over job performance, and loss of social support.
Aiello and Kolb hypothesize that the way in which monitoring is conducted affects employee productivity and stress. In a laboratory experiment involving simple data-entry tasks, they address a number of questions, including how monitoring affects productivity and worker perceptions and whether or not the social environment moderates the effects on productivity. The authors predict that monitoring should increase performance on simple tasks and decrease it on complex tasks because simple task performance is enhanced by an audience. In addition, they speculate that individually-monitored participants will have the highest rate of performance, and those monitored at a work-group level will have a somewhat higher performance than nonmonitored participants. Aiello and Kolb suggest that the composition of the work group may affect productivity and stress. They hypothesize that individuals who work alone will perform at a lower rate than individual participants in the presence of others–either strangers or members of a cohesive work group, and that the latter will be the most productive and experience less stress than lone individuals or anonymous groups, due to social support.
The experimental results show that high-ability participants (those with high baseline scores) who are monitored perform at a high rate, while similarly monitored low-ability participants (low baseline scores) perform at a lower rate. This occurs regardless of whether the monitoring is at the individual or workgroup level. Because baseline scores are a measure of preexisting skill, performance indicates that “fast workers get faster, and slower workers get slower.” Aiello and Kolb conclude that productivity increases only when workers have mastered the task and suggest that monitoring may lead to poorer performance and a longer learning curve among those who are still learning their job.
The authors find limited evidence that working in groups affects productivity, because group members are not more productive than participants who work alone. However, work groups may be an effective strategy to reduce stress of monitoring, as individually monitored participants report the most stress, nonmonitored the least, and group monitored, intermediate stress levels. Aiello and Kolb point out that monitoring appears to induce feelings of stress independent of changes in job design and loss of social support, as all participants in the study were exposed to the same job elements.
There are a number of factors unmeasured in this study that may moderate the effect of monitoring on workers, for example, a punitive or supportive organizational climate, employee involvement in adopting and implementing monitoring systems, and how rewards from increased productivity are distributed. The authors suggest research should be undertaken on these subjects and caution that it is beyond the scope of their study to assess the cumulative effects of being subject to electronic observation.
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