Presenteeism - dead and gone? Not so fast!

In the face of unprecedented levels of remote working, we would be forgiven for thinking that presenteeism is dead and tick it off the list as one less thing we need to worry about. Tempting, but insights from some of our larger clients show some worrying trends.

With many organisations taking an ‘opting in’ approach to inviting workers back to the office, smaller numbers are choosing to return to collective workspaces. Some organisations have less than 50% of their workers now in the office, compared to 90% – 95% pre COVID.

Of those who have returned, many are people leaders. For these managers, interacting with smaller numbers of onsite team members, means more frequent interactions, which in turn leads to deeper relationships and greater trust.   

In contrast, many of those working remotely, report feeling ‘alienated’ and ‘disconnected’. While there’s no question that there are many advantages in working from home, there are also definite challenges associated with not having easy access to colleagues, less face time with decision-makers and more difficulty in sharing information.

The emotional impact of being physically separated from colleagues, can also lead to feelings of isolation and a fear of being less relied upon and valued. This can fuel job security concerns, especially in the wake of the uncertainty, sparked by the global pandemic.

Acutely aware of their need to remain connected and prove their worth, many remote workers are overcompensating by working longer and harder – and forgoing any boundaries they might have had, when they worked in the office. This phenomenon is leading to e-presenteeism  – the idea that because remote workers aren’t ‘visible’ they need to continuously be ‘available’ and ‘switched on’, and that the burden of responsibility rests on them, to prove that they are still productive and contributing members of the team.

A recent Linked In study found that 86% of those employees forced to operate from home as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions, have felt pressure to overperform. Read more here

Over a quarter also listed the lack of separation between work and life as a major stressor. Ironically, the very thing that flexible work was designed to do – i.e. improve work/life balance, is creating more stress and a trajectory towards burnout!

The fact of the matter is that e-presenteeism is a form of systemic bias (biases inherent in organisational processes and systems) that is flourishing in the post COVID world. And the group of employees it’s having an impact on, is considerable. 

As business leaders, we need to recognise the need to address the behavioural as well as logistical issues that arise from changes in work design. It’s not good enough that we simply make technology available and send our team members off to work by themselves, while doing a once a week ‘check in’.  Taking a business as usual approach and not recognising the practical, emotional and psychological impact of changes in work design, will only create an avenue for systemic biases to flourish, albeit under a different guise.

So, what can you do to minimise the negative impacts of
e-presenteeism in your teams?

First off, you need to understand that your employees are not operating on an even playing field. Remote workers have distinct challenges and disadvantages, when it comes to relationship building, connection, information sharing and trust. You need to recognise this and put steps in place to address the pain points to foster a more inclusive culture, for all your people, no matter where they are based. 

Here are 5 tips on what you can do to minimise the impact of

1. Ask for feedback from your remote workers

As a manager, ignoring the issue will only add fuel to the fire. Once you understand the issues faced by your remote workers, you will be able to identify what steps you need to take to support them and the wider team to make positive changes.

2. Upskill your office-based workers

Encourage open and transparent discussions with your wider team on the challenges and risks associated with remote working. Talk about the biases that could play out and encourage dialogue on how these could be addressed.  Get input from everyone! Enrolling the wider team in addressing some of the connection, information sharing and relationship building challenges, means that everyone becomes part of the solution.

3. Create a set of guidelines for your remote workers

These should go beyond the practicalities and logistics of remote working and address the ‘felt experience’ as well as set clear expectations about performance and behaviours. E.g. We do not require you to work overtime or answer the phone outside of your set hours.  Be clear about what performance outputs you are looking for and recognise that working from home is more disruptive than working from an office – be realistic in your expectations. Make sure these are shared with your office-based workers as well.

4. Communicate frequently and don’t just use technology to transact – use it to connect!

Aside from formal team get togethers, create opportunities for your teams to connect informally with you and each other. The more opportunities you create for ‘casual interactions’, the better. E.g. Invite your team to block out a slot in their diaries once a week, where team members are invited to connect with them on any issue that’s important to them. The purpose of this is simply to build relationship, share experiences and catch up. 

5. Call out the benefits of remote working

Let’s face it, we have come from a time when flexible working was considered a ‘concession’ and something that we ‘allowed’ if our employee proved themselves to be trustworthy. That time is gone.  If we have learnt anything, we understand the financial benefits of lower office overheads, the positive impact on climate change, and the opportunity to improve productivity as we spend less time commuting. Calling out the positives serves to legitimise the arrangement and will give your remote teams a sense that they are making a bigger contribution – one that has a positive impact on the organisation, the economy and the climate.

There’s no question that remote working is here to stay – but systemic biases don’t need to be part of that story. Smart business leaders recognise that they need to move beyond the practical and logistical arrangements of remote working, to understand the psychological impact and hidden biases that can play out to derail these workers.

To find out how Diversitas can help identify and address Systemic Bias within your organisation, don't hesitate to contact us here

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