Working remotely proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Why? Mainly because Covid-19 restrictions have only made more obvious the issue of presenteeism. Up to the point that employees have developed an “always-on” culture to prove to managers just how committed and indispensable they are.
Although many organizations are optimistic that they won’t return to the traditional and rigid office cultures endured pre-Covid-19, the danger lies within replacing bad old habits with remote (micro)management and working behaviors that may be just as damaging. Which makes us wonder whether in the dawns of the "new normality" a hybrid work schedule is able to end the culture of presenteeism.
Hybrid Work Schedule is About Employee Autonomy and Flexibility
First thing first: what is a hybrid work schedule? It's a hybrid of a traditional nine-to-five work schedule and a more flexible, non-traditional structure. It means allowing employees to choose their own working schedule, as well as where exactly they want to work from. This hybrid way of working has become very common among companies which are now allowing their employees to schedule their daily tasks in a more flexible way. With the right tools and processes, your life and that of your team becomes more flexible, balanced, and productive.
The benefits it brings are countless:
- More flexibility makes people more productive. Flexible work makes people better focused on tasks, thus more productive. Why? No workplace distractions, no rush to arrive on-time or to be stuck in traffic. Plus, the freedom to work during productive hours, to accommodate one’s working pace. So, it’s no wonder flexibility has overtaken salary as the top workplace benefit!
- Better work/life balance makes employees happier and more engaged. Greater flexibility and allowing people to work where they are most productive and schedule their tasks appropriately will improve their level of satisfaction and will keep them productive, engaged and loyal.
- Reduced commute time means improved health and well-being. Nobody likes wasting time in stressful commutes. Hybrid work reduces the time needed to commute, which leads to more productive employees. You are less exposed to germs and you can also free up time for more exercise or leisure activities with family or friends.
- Trust that employees will work productively against established goals means that companies embrace moving towards an outcome-based mindset and a model where their staff have a level of autonomy over their schedule and where they choose to work. This is helpful to many employees who are working to blend their personal and professional responsibilities.
Within this new model, the ability to work asynchronously at a time that suits each individual is fast becoming the new battleground among the world’s biggest companies.
It's time for companies to let go of constant supervision and clock watching, and instead prioritize accomplishment, ability and capability. But will the culture of presenteeism be left behind that easily?
What Is the Culture of Presenteeism at Work?
Presenteeism means working when you’re physically ill or suffering from poor mental well-being, often stress. Anyone who has ever worked in an office will most likely have experienced the traditional culture of presenteeism. It comes with a strong pressure to be physically visible at work, often for long hours, looking at least somewhat busy, even if you’re not actually being productive at all.
“We’re talking about people hanging in there when they get sick and trying to figure out ways to carry on despite their symptoms,” says Debra Lerner, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston - quoted by Harvard Business Review, who notes that presenteeism is more stressed in tough economic times, when people are afraid of losing their jobs.
The illnesses people take with them to work usually account for a greater loss in productivity because they are so prevalent, so often go untreated, and typically occur during peak working years. Those indirect costs have long been largely invisible to employers.
Presenteeism can take several shapes:
- employees working when they’re ill
- working longer than their contracted hours
- having an ‘always-on’ culture where employees are habitually working beyond, and responding to communications, outside of regular working hours
Presenteeism basically means showing up when you’re not fit to, and when employees do this, it decreases engagement, motivation and productivity.
Why Is It a Problem? The Hidden Cost of Presenteeism
Researchers say that presenteeism can cut individual productivity by one-third or more. In fact, presenteeism appears to be a much costlier problem than absenteeism. And, unlike absenteeism, presenteeism isn’t always apparent: You know when someone doesn’t show up for work, but you often can’t tell when - or how much - illness or a medical condition is hindering someone’s performance.
Many of the medical problems that result in presenteeism are, by their nature, relatively benign and relate to: seasonal allergies, asthma, migraines and other kinds of headaches, back pain, arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression.
The same Harvard Business Review article mentions that two Journal of the American Medical Association studies found that the on-the-job productivity loss resulting from depression and pain was roughly three times greater than the absence-related productivity loss attributed to these conditions. That is, less time was actually lost from people staying home than from them showing up but not performing at the top of their game.
Can Hybrid Working Schedule End Presenteeism?
Allowing employees to choose the working hours that best suit their needs and help them better manage work-life conflicts, as well as where exactly they want to work from means that presenteeism "at the office" might soon become a resolved issue.
A flexible working schedule is the foundation for the healthy workplace practices
If people are able to improve their work-life balance by working flexibly, they will be less likely to feel they have to struggle when they shouldn’t, or to suffer from stress, anxiety or other physical illness. That might mean working from home to cut down the commute. Or it could mean flexing start and finish times, or simply working part-time to create space to fit other personal activities.
Employers should explicitly encourage flexible working
Flexible working habits must be present at all levels from top down, for all new positions, and for all staff. Leaders are in charge of creating clear cultural norms with direct impact on the objectives and workloads that need to accommodate reasonable working hours. In an employee-centric culture, remote work shouldn't lead to overtime working. The critical success factor is that the roles need to be designed with built-in flexibility.
A hybrid work schedule will give space to more autonomy and creativity
Flexible work makes people better focused on tasks, thus more productive. Why? No workplace distractions, no rush to arrive on-time... Plus, the freedom to work during productive hours, to accommodate one’s working pace and the responsibility he is entrusted with to get the job done will unleash creativity and innovation.
In a hybrid working model, managers should encourage employees to work productively against established objectives
When managing hybrid teams, adoption of a goal-based mindset is a must. Managers should motivate employees to work productively against established objectives, regardless of their working location.There will be more frequent “check-ins” with managed teams to compensate for the lack of in-office conversations and drive a sense of team connection and cohesion, including more social face-to-face or virtual get togethers. “A lot of it is around transparent and frequent communication, because in the absence of communication and knowing what’s happening, people will fill in the gaps for themselves. And that’s where insecurities flourish and where people become anxious.”
Although presenteeism at work might see its days end, the Covid-19 pandemic has set off a new dangerous culture, which is that of "digital presenteeism".
The Trap of Digital Presenteeism
It’s no surprise that with the recent mass shift from office to remote working and then to the new hybrid working model, digital presenteeism is now a common problem. It is when you feel under pressure to always be available online, via video calls, phone, email, chat or Teams. It’s when you've done a full day's work, but feel pressure to log on or reply later than your normal or preferred working patterns, even if you feel exhausted or unwell.
A survey of 2,000 workers by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation showed that the pressure to be available means people working from home are, on average, working an extra 28 hours per month. More than half of those surveyed said they felt more anxious since working from home, with a third having trouble sleeping.
So, the flip side of remote working is the guilt of not always being physically present, which triggers the need to be "digitally present", or available via email and phone at all times. This affects your performance, well-being and work-life balance, as well as your personal relationships.
“Digital presenteeism is often hidden in plain sight, because it just becomes the norm and therefore becomes invisible.
Tried-And-Tested Tips for Minimizing the Culture of Presenteeism in Hybrid Workplaces
Recognize the Causes and Symptoms
How do we recognize digital presenteeism?
Fundamentally, digital presenteeism is an issue of trust. In most modern workplaces, we’re switching between up to 10 apps each day, to which adds other document editors and productivity software, all brilliantly designed to facilitate friction-free collaboration. The side effect is that they make it even easier to send that early morning reply, or a late night thumbs up emoji. Even the very simple act of setting your status to ‘Active’ or ‘Available’ means you can see when people log-on and off, before a message has even been sent.
This has made the workplace fragmented and full of information silos, which makes it hard to know what’s going on across the company. A research carried out by Qatalog among 2,000 knowledge workers from the UK and US revealed that 63% of workers find it harder to build trust with each other when working remotely, while a further 66% said a lack of visibility had led them to question the actions of colleagues and leaders. Only 28% of the interviewed felt that their contribution at work was recognized.
What about the symptoms?
- Employees working late or arriving early
- No breaks are being taken
- Checking on emails on the weekends, evenings or during holiday leave
- Working while unwell
- Always being available for online calls – so not scheduling focus time for administrative work
- Performance levels dropping
In 2021, Microsoft surveyed more than 30,000 of its users across 31 countries. It found that people were sending 42% more messages after hours compared to the year before, and three times the number of messages on weekends.
Define a Presenteeism Policy
People need time to recharge. An ‘always-on’ culture makes this almost impossible, leading to unhappy and unproductive employees, or even burnout. This kind of experience has already forced millions to reassess what they want from work, resulting in the so-called “great resignation”.
Setting up good working practices in your organization will:
- Combat digital exhaustion from the top. As we look to create a better future of work, addressing digital exhaustion must be a priority for leaders everywhere. It won’t be easy, but consider how to reduce employee workloads, embrace a balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and create a culture where breaks are encouraged and respected.
- Encourage looking at the value added rather than presenteeism to measure productivity. For example, you could use customer net promoter scores rather than hours worked to evaluate whether your employees are performing well and meeting expectations.
- Stimulate managers to better articulate teams' objectives and what is meant by achieving results. Rewarding hours worked only makes sense for repetitive tasks, not creative or problem-solving challenges.
- Help educate employees. You may want to set up programs to ensure that illnesses aren’t going undiagnosed because employees don’t realize they have a problem. Create a routine for managers to regularly check how their team members are working remotely, particularly those who may struggle with feelings of isolation and uncertainty.
Support All Types of Working Environments
Every organization will need a plan to empower people for more flexibility that encompasses policy, physical space, and technology.
Leaders must consider how to equip all workers with the tools they need to contribute - whether they’re working from home, in the office, or on the go. Physical office space must be compelling enough to welcome workers to commute in, and include a mix of collaboration and focus areas. Solutions such as: desk and room booking, visitor management, digital reception, workplace analytics or a work planning tool will make your workplace interconnected, catering to all your employees’ needs, no matter the location.
Ensure the Visibility of Teams’ Goals and Objectives
Project management tools will keep everybody in the company on the same page, offering 360° visibility over projects, tasks, status reports, performance KPIs etc. Organizations should strive to reward the results of work while ensuring that the hours worked to achieve those results are reasonable. This depends on setting SMART objectives, supporting staff to prioritize, and using feedback to measure performance against objectives.
Once expectations have been clearly set and understood, it doesn’t really matter whether the employee works from the office or remotely. When people feel empowered to work autonomously, they will also feel a sense of purpose and satisfaction when the job is done.
Encourage a Healthy Work-Life Balance
This comes from fostering social connections at work and building a positive culture. A large number of empirical studies confirm that positive social connections at work produce highly desirable results. For example, people get sick less often, experience less depression, learn faster, remember longer, and perform better on the job. A research by Sarah Pressman at the University of California, Irvine, found that the probability of dying early is 70% higher for people with poor social relationships. Toxic, stress-filled workplaces affect social relationships and, consequently, life expectancy.
Enabling a positive culture is what makes work more fun. And that’s the kind of workplace where most people will stay for a long time.
Foster the Culture of Trust and Responsibility
Making time for those social connections at work is worth the effort. The benefits that flow from strong relationships among employees are crucial to an organization’s success. In data from the Work Trend Index, employees who had thriving relationships with their immediate team reported better well-being than those with poor relationships, along with higher productivity. The conclusion is that when people trust each other, they take risks together, which can be very helpful with innovation and creativity. Trust shows up when there is room for empathy, vulnerability and a safe space where employees can make their voices heard.
Lead by Example
Leaders need to set an example to follow when it comes to reducing the culture of presenteeism in hybrid workplaces. People pay more attention to certain messengers than others, which is why senior decision-makers from top down should model and encourage reasonable working hours, with email signatures, calendar settings, or ‘out of office’ messages, for example. Another solution could be to ban working past a certain time, or perhaps something as simple as turning off the lights. These measures tell staff that they are not expected to be working late, which may help shift the culture.
As challenging as this is, reducing presenteeism offers great opportunities ahead of competition compared to investments in "traditional" areas such as training. “Better management of employee health can lead to improved productivity, which can create a competitive business advantage,” says Sean Sullivan of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.
It is now wonder that companies are starting to pay more attention to investments in efforts to cut presenteeism - i.e. the expenses on medical care - to foster a healthier, more positive working environment and generate improved business results.