Labor Process Innovations Increased Productivity

(p. 6) . . . , Greg Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, has gone so far as to argue that the Industrial Revolution was in part a self-control revolution. Many economists, beginning with Adam Smith, have argued that factories — an important innovation of the Industrial Revolution — blossomed because they allowed workers to specialize and be more productive.
Professor Clark argues that work rules truly differentiated the factory. People working at home could start and finish when they wanted, a very appealing sort of flexibility, but it had a major drawback, he said. People ended up doing less work that way.
Factories imposed discipline. They enforced strict work hours. There were rules for when you could go home and for when you had to show up at the beginning of your shift. If you arrived late you could be locked out for the day. For workers being paid piece rates, this certainly got them up and at work on time. You can even see something similar with the assembly line. Those operations dictate a certain pace of work. Like a running partner, an assembly line enforces a certain speed.
As Professor Clark provocatively puts it: “Workers effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder. They lacked the self-control to achieve higher earnings on their own.”
The data entry workers in our study, centuries later, might have agreed with that statement. In fact, 73 percent of them did agree to this statement: “It would be good if there were rules against being absent because it would help me come to work more often.”
Of course with newer forms of technology, showing up for work on time need not mean being physically at a given workplace. A study by the economists Nicholas Bloom, John Roberts and Zhichun Ying of Stanford and James Liang of Peking University looked at call center workers in China. In their experiment, some workers were randomly assigned to work at home, others worked in group call centers. The work habits of both groups were carefully monitored electronically, and the workers knew it. The researchers found that those working at home were 13 percent more productive than those in call centers. With modern technology, we now have so many ways to quantify, track and motivate productivity. We do not need to lock factory doors or even have a factory. Yet we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of motivating production in this way.

For the full commentary, see:
SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN. “Economic View; Looking at Productivity as a State of Mind.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., SEPT. 28, 2014): 6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 27, 2014.)

The article mentioned above by Clark is:
Clark, Gregory. “Factory Discipline.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 1 (March 1994): 128-63.

The article mentioned above by Bloom, Liang, Roberts and Ying is:
Bloom, Nicholas, James Liang, John Roberts, and Zhichun Jenny Ying. “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment.” August 18, 2014.

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