Presenteeism hasn’t been left behind in the office

Written by Ian Wylie Tuesday 15 December 2020
Working from home has left some employees logging longer hours, but this doesn't mean they are being more productive

Presenteeism used to mean draping a jacket over the office chair to show our boss we hadn’t left the building. But even in an age when remote working – usually from home – is increasingly the norm, and our office desk is now the kitchen table, presenteeism remains the unhealthy habit we can’t seem to kick.

The forced shift from office to home working had many employers fearing a dramatic loss in productivity. In fact, a survey commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Boston Consulting Group and KRC Research suggests a very different outcome. The poll of 9,000 managers and employees in large firms across Europe found that productivity has remained stable or even increased for many companies that switched to remote working during the pandemic. These findings are echoed in our Management Transformed research.

Many organisations are optimistic that we won’t return to the traditional and rigid office cultures endured pre-Covid, but is there a danger we could simply be replacing them with remote management and working behaviours that are just as damaging? In these times of job insecurity when an estimated third of the working population are worried about losing their jobs, many workers are relying on “always-on” presenteeism to prove to managers just how committed and indispensable they are.

“I think there's a lot of optimism that people won't go back to the office in the same way,” says Daisy Hooper, CMI head of policy. “But clearly, in some cases, there'll be a very strong culture of presenteeism that will be difficult to eradicate.”

Presenteeism can take several shapes: employees working when they’re ill; working longer than their contracted hours; having an ‘always-on’ culture where employees feel they have to respond to emails and messages outside of working hours.

On the face of it, some of these behaviours may not seem that problematic. But presenteeism is an issue that can be just as damaging for a business as absenteeism. Staff stress and burnout will eventually lead to more sickness and absenteeism issues later down the line. It’s also symptomatic of a lack of trust in your organisation – your employees have been hired to fulfill business needs to the best of their ability, so why is logging hours taking priority over quality of work?

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.

The solution lies in good leadership and management. In CMI’s survey of nearly 2,300 senior leaders, managers and employees for its Management Transformed research project – exploring the extraordinary challenges and new ways of working that have emerged during 2020 – it found that it’s not where we work that determines our productivity and job satisfaction; it’s how we’re managed and led.

So how do we manage and lead people out of presenteeism? Begin by setting the tone for good working practices in your organisation. Don’t look to presenteeism to measure productivity, recommends Hooper. Look at value added. For example, can you utilise customer net promoter scores rather than hours worked to evaluate whether your employees are performing well and meeting expectations? In an increasingly location-agnostic world, managers need absolute clarity about what is meant by “achieving results”. Rewarding hours worked only makes sense for repetitive tasks, not creative or problem-solving challenges.

Then build healthy working into your culture. Set and communicate regularly the expectation that regular working hours, breaks and holidays are the default, even when staff are working from home instead of in the office. Ensure that senior leaders demonstrate and model their commitment to this. And create a routine for managers to regularly check how staff are working remotely, particularly those who may struggle with feelings of isolation and uncertainty.


You can read more around this subject in our Management Transformed research – pay particular attention to Productivity isn’t about where you work; it’s how you’re managed.

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