Tens of millions of us — two thirds of all American full-time workers — are now working from home. This often means we’ve had little direct supervision or oversight in months, away from our colleagues’ (and our boss’s) watchful eye.
That may feel nice… but data shows that we perform better when we know we’re being observed. For example, in a study of 40,000 Virgin Atlantic flights conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, one group of captains was told that their fuel performance was being monitored, and the other group was not. The captains who knew they were being observed had better fuel efficiency throughout takeoff, flight, and landing. The principle that direct observation improves work performance is commonly known as the “Hawthorne effect.”
I’ve thought a lot about this lately, because I developed a podcast called Follow the Leader. I recorded a CEO during a pivotal moment in his business, and he later told me that the direct observation helped him focus. “I was more reflective and poised than I would have been having done this on my own,” said the CEO, Taymur Ahmad, of the company Actnano. Interesting! So how can we all gain that benefit, even if we don’t have a boss (or podcaster) watching?
Here are three ways.
1. Add self-observation to your routine
If nobody’s watching us, then we need to watch ourselves. We can’t let life and work become a blur, with each day blending into the next. To improve productivity and reduce stress, grab a notebook and start taking notes on what you’re doing, how it’s going, and how you’re feeling.
Don’t know where to start? Make a list of your main goals before each week, and then track what is accomplished by the end. This practice is beneficial in several ways. It helps reduce the pressure we put on ourselves by demonstrating that we did more than we probably thought. Because we’re able to look back on our work, we can identify what is working well and what is not. We can also identify problems, such as spending too much time on low-priority items or overemphasizing our perceived failures.
2. Get an accountability partner
If journaling and self-imposed goals are not for you, you might consider joining forces with a friend, colleague, or peer to serve as each other’s accountability partner. An accountability partnership is the mutually beneficial relationship between two individuals that support each other by serving as sounding boards and helping each other keep commitments.
Just as a workout buddy helps us stay active, an accountability partner provides motivation and support for our career. For the advice-giver, it is gratifying to provide feedback and encouragement for a colleague.
It’s important to partner with someone you trust, respect, and empathize with. Spend the first meeting discussing your current goals and potential challenges to set the stage. Subsequent meetings should be regular — weekly, for example — with half the time focused on progress and accomplishments of one partner, and half on the other. Over time, the benefits of this mutual observation will help both partners meet their professional goals.
3. Go public
It may be annoying to see your friend’s daily running progress in your Instagram timeline, but they aren’t just bragging. Putting information out into the world can help people develop better habits. For example, a 2013 study published in Translational Behavioral Medicine found that when people posted their weight loss progress on Twitter, they lost more weight than people who didn’t share.
Sharing isn’t enough, of course: Research has shown that merely making a public proclamation about an intended goal does not lead to better results. But it is a good first step. Next, it’s critical to provide regular updates on how we are progressing, so that we’re continuously recommiting to achieving our goal. Publicly sharing small, attainable achievements helps us make progress towards our larger goals.
Most of us will remain in our home offices for quite some time. It’s important to continue to adapt our habits to better fit this new environment and settle in. As my podcast Follow The Leader found, we don’t need a boss to breathe down our necks to get the benefits of being observed. But if we’re not accountable to ourselves, we’ll end up accountable to nobody.