NEW YORK – Workplaces are beginning to reopen, but the pandemic has catalyzed a steady increase in remote and gig work with no signs of slowing down. With more workers than ever doing their jobs away from the office, misconduct is easier to perpetrate, and harder to stop. Now, new research from Columbia Business School Assistant Professors of Management Vanessa Burbano and Bennett Chiles sheds light on the measures that work best to mitigate gig and remote worker misconduct, such as straying off task or shirking responsibility, finding that when employers communicate company values, employees are more likely to stay on task. However, the research also reveals that employer surveillance, while an effective measure on its own, cancels out any benefits of proactive outreach efforts.
“Employers looking for ways to keep their remote workers on task can increase communication efforts to employees around the company’s social responsibility values and employee ethics,” said Professor Burbano. “If the company simultaneously ups the monitoring of the workers and they know they’re being watched, though, the benefits tied to communication of values are negated.”
The researchers used the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform to perform an experiment that monitored nearly 4,000 workers in an online gig work setting. Workers were instructed to enter information into the “Contact” sections of websites and were given the opportunity to earn bonus pay if they contacted the website owners by phone. The researchers randomly assigned whether values communications were implemented - communications regarding employer-level social responsibility values, employee ethical code values, or no such communication – as well as randomly assigned whether or not workers received a note in their assignment description that their work would being monitored. By tracking whether the workers completed the task or shirked on the job, as well as whether they fraudulently claimed any bonus payments from their employer, researchers were able to determine a causal link between communication of organizational values and a decline in misconduct. This effect, however, was negated when workers were informed that they were being monitored.
Other key findings include:
- Monitoring works, but not together with communication - When implemented individually, both communication of organizational values and the threat of monitoring can reduce employee misconduct. But when implemented in combination, the effects of values-oriented policies and monitoring policies are not additive.
- Monitoring erodes trust - The threat of monitoring is likely to lower perceived trust between worker and employer, which inhibits workers from forming the sense of shared values with the employer that the communication of organizational values would otherwise elicit.
- True for traditional work settings - This reasoning should apply to – and may even be more visible in – traditional work contexts. Monitoring destroys trust even more in settings where work is more interpersonal, which means this undesirable moderating effect would be even greater in traditional, physically close, work contexts.
“Remote work is here to stay, and the gig economy only continues to explode in growth. In these settings, employers have traditionally been less likely to communicate company values, because the work is often seen as transactional. This is a major oversight,” said Professor Burbano. “As these types of work become increasingly prevalent, employers are going to have to learn how to communicate their values even to physically distant employees if they want to be most effective at building trust, cultivating buy-in, and ultimately, helping workers to stay on track.”
The study Mitigating Gig and Remote Worker Misconduct: Evidence from a Real Effort Experiment can be found online here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researchers
Vanessa Burbano is the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Management in the strategy area at Columbia Business School. She was named to