A Stitch in Time: Work Complexity and the Divergent Effects of Employee Monitoring on Productivity

A Stitch in Time: Work Complexity and the Divergent Effects of Employee Monitoring on Productivity

By Aruna Ranganathan, Alan Benson
December 1,2017Working Paper No. 3720

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While sociologists have long warned that employee monitoring alienates and demotivates workers, early management theorists have argued that monitoring pushes workers to perform better. This paper adjudicates between these rival perspectives by exploring the conditions under which employee monitoring improves or impairs productivity. We argue that the effect of monitoring on productivity depends on the work being monitored. Using quantitative data from an Indian garment manufacturing plant, we examine how a monitoring technology introduced on three of the plant’s twelve production lines affected productivity. We find that the effect of monitoring varied by the complexity of the work performed: both across and within production lines, monitoring improved productivity for simple work but decreased productivity for complex work. Our qualitative data suggest that workers performing simple work creatively interpreted the monitoring technology as play while workers engaged in complex work understood monitoring as coercive process control. We contribute to research on monitoring and productivity by demonstrating how key features of work, such as work complexity, can moderate the effect of monitoring on productivity through workers’ differential interpretations of monitoring technologies. Our results also suggest that the classic sociological and management theories of monitoring both have merit, but in different work contexts.