Every Stitch You Make: The Divergent Effects of Monitoring Technology by Employee’s Level of Identification with their Work

Every Stitch You Make: The Divergent Effects of Monitoring Technology by Employee’s Level of Identification with their Work

2015Working Paper No. 3365

Scholars of work have long been interested in the effect of monitoring technologies on worker productivity, but the empirical evidence on this question is mixed. Classic studies including the Hawthorne experiments suggest that the simple act of observing employees increases productivity, but more recent studies have found that reduced monitoring increases worker productivity because workers value their privacy. I argue that while existing studies have carefully estimated the effect of monitoring technologies on productivity, the mixed empirical findings could result from a lack of attention to the work being performed by the employees subject to monitoring. In this paper, I study the introduction of RFID monitoring technology in a garment factory in India, exploiting a natural experiment where this technology was introduced in some, but not all, lines in the factory. Using unique longitudinal personnel records on line productivity along with qualitative data from ethnographic observation, I find that monitoring technologies are only effective in increasing worker productivity when workers do not identify with their work and see work as a chore; on the contrary, when monitoring technologies are implemented in settings where workers already identify with their work, these technologies are counterproductive and result in reduced worker productivity. In this way, the paper uncovers conditions under which monitoring can be effective in increasing labor productivity.