Why The Most Productive People Are Under Surveillance

If Big Brother is keeping an eye on you, you’ll work harder, right? Let’s cut through the doublespeak.

Why The Most Productive People Are Under Surveillance

A dash of humor, a dose of music, and a smidge of meditation have all been linked with increased productivity?


How about surveillance?

That’s the case–at least in one buzz-generating study regarding workers at “casual dining” restaurants.

The paper, coauthored by Lamar Pierce of Washington University, Daniel Snow of Brigham Young, and Andrew McAfee of MIT, tracked the tracking of employees in 392 businesses in 39 states–at restaurants along the lines of Applebee’s, Chili’s, or Olive Garden.

The restaurants used NCR’s Restaurant Guard, a piece of tracking software that alerts managers to workers stealing from the till–which, as the New York Times notes, is a major problem in the restaurant industry: Since a restraurant will only nab a 2% to 5% profit margin, the 1% of revenue loss that employee theft represents is a major problem.

But the biggest change in behavior wasn’t in deterring thefts–that came to about $108 a week per restaurant–the Times observes, but in the increased hustle that the surveillance incentivized:

After installing the monitoring software, the revenue per restaurant increased by an average of $2,982 a week, or about 7%.

The impact, the researchers say, came not from firing workers engaged in theft, but mostly from their changed behavior. Knowing they were being monitored, the servers not only pulled back from unethical practices but also channeled their efforts into, say, prompting customers to have that dessert or a second beer, raising revenue for the restaurant and tips for themselves.

So, strangely enough, knowing that the boss is looking over your shoulder all the time can make you work harder.


“What’s surprising is the weird effectiveness of the intervention, once the monitoring technology is in place,” Andrew McAfee, the MIT researcher, told the Times.

Surveillance-State productivity

If it sounds a little Orwellian, that’s because it is: Atlantic writer Derek Thompson quipped that when you turn “casual-dining restaurants into casual-dining panopticons,” everybody works harder.

Productivity research is “something of a spray and pray field,” Thompson continues, where anything from “cat pictures to naps” can help make people better at their jobs. That irresolution, we can infer, is due to the lack of consensus about what productivity is, as opposed to creativity, innovation, or product development.

For knowledge workers, at least, autonomy has been shown as one of the main drivers of engagement–a sibling of productivity–which drives organizational success.

Hat tip: the New York Times

[Image: Flickr user Michael Coghlan]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.