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With the new year coming soon, the resolved and motivated (a class certainly well-represented by business owners) are going to be tackling some big resolutions for 2010. If you are looking for ways to improve the efficiency and productivity of your employees, it may be wise not only to look forward, but backward as well.

Let’s take a look back at an experiment that took place back in the 1920’s. Elton Mayo, a Harvard Business school professor, decided to conduct an experiment at Chicago’s Western Electric Hawthorne Works factory. Here, female employees were assembling telephone relays, a mechanism made of forty parts that had to be assembled and dropped into a chute when finished. The work was somewhat boring and monotonous, so Mayo decided to see what variables could be implemented to decrease fatigue and increase output.

Female employees were selected in groups of six to participate in the studies, during which time they would continue to work, but under frequently changing conditions. The original work week consisted of a nine-to-five, six days a week (Saturdays included) with no breaks and for a steady wage. During the course of Mayo’s experiment, the girls were put on piece-work, given rest periods of varying lengths, allowed to go home earlier, and offered a free hot meal by the company, all of which appeared to show an increase in worker productivity. It appeared at this point that the variety added to an otherwise boring day helped decrease fatigue among the workers, thus leading to their overall increased productivity.

However, no experiment is complete without a control group, so to contrast with the results, the girls returned to their original working conditions. To Mayo’s surprise, productivity remained at its highest point, showing no decrease at all!

What was to be made of this? Mayo concluded that the psychological impact of group dynamics was actually more important to the productivity of the workers than the physical conditions of the work itself. However, this did not change the fact that the implementation of novelty to the workplace also appeared to have a somewhat stimulating effect as well.

So, if we are to take a lesson from history here, here are a few good New Year’s Resolutions that you can try to implement to make your workers happier and your business more money:

Pay more attention to them. The Hawthorne experiment demonstrates that groups react rather well to social reward, even if the social reward is non-material. As long as you don’t compromise yourself so much as to ruin your productivity, make it a point to be a “cool boss.”

Discourage intra-office competition. Far too many office places stick to some kind of classical economic dogma that people are completely individualistic and that intra-office competition (even if it is zero-sum) will promote greater productivity. The reality is that this does not always work the way one would like. For example, sales departments may set up contests or quotas in overlapping territories for their marketers, creating a condition where one employee benefits at the expense of another. When employees who are spending the better half of their waking weekday lives together are pushed to compete against each other, workplace hostility is a distinct and unpleasant possibility. It is far better to offer cooperative situations, so that they will be less likely to be resentful of their coworkers (and, by consequence, their jobs).

Consider group incentives. While some workers work better on their own, many workers prefer the sense of belongingness and support that a group has to offer. Take some time to evaluate your production paradigms: are your employees working independently on different parts of the task, or are they working cooperatively on the task as a whole? Depending on the nature of your business, it may be worth your time to experiment and see if a different system works better.

Offer piecework incentives. The eerie drone of the hourly wage prompts many bored employees to make the best of their time by doing less work while they patiently watch the clock tick on. Try to figure out a way to make their productivity their own by awarding points or bonuses of some form.

Be actively involved in their work. A later interpretation of the Hawthorne effect came in the 1950’s when a researcher claimed that the increase in productivity Mayo observed might have been the result of observation itself; that is, the knowledge that the workers were being more closely monitored may have conditioned greater attention to productivity and less attention to laziness. While it is not good to gain a reputation for being Big Brother, it is always good to have an awareness of exactly what is being done by each employee; the mere act of doing so may improve what you would not have picked up on.

While these goals don’t apply to every business, you surely can and should find ways to improve for the new year and develop some organizational resolutions of your own.  For sake of encouragement toward your co-workers and employees, you should prominently display your resolution as a reminder throughout the year of what you have decided to improve.

You should also take this time to reflect on those improvements from last year and congratulate everyone, including yourself, for the accomplishments.  

Happy New Year…  Peace and Prosperity for all!

This Business article was written by Mark Karavan on 12/31/2009

Mark Karavan is an online advice publisher