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Digital presenteeism is a real challenge in the new world of work

12 Sep 2022

New working models should mean a new way of tracking performance. But old habits die hard as digital presenteeism still poses a problem.

Some of the biggest hurdles that workplaces had to get over as we moved into a more remote and hybrid world were outdated ways of working involving micromanagement and presenteeism.

So much of these practices rely on being able to see your employees in the office, but neither are good for productivity and employee engagement.

However, the mere insertion of a new working model doesn’t automatically get rid of these problems. In fact, office presenteeism has morphed into digital presenteeism for remote workers.

According to a report from Qatalog and GitLab earlier this year, knowledge workers have become worried their work won’t be recognised while working remotely. More than half (54pc) of respondents said they feel pressure to show colleagues and managers that they are online and working during certain times of the day.

The report also said that workers surveyed spend an extra 67 minutes each day making sure they are visibly online at work.

While technology has made remote and asynchronous work possible, Grow Remote’s Tracy Keogh said it also facilitates digital presenteeism. This is where employees can feel the need to reply to messages and emails immediately and to ensure their Microsoft Teams status is always green and set to ‘active’ to prove they’re there.

“In most digital workplaces, you’re able to see who is online at what times and when emails are sent. This can lead to defaulting back to a presenteeism mindset. This is why change management programmes are so crucial as adapting this mindset takes time, focus and regular re-alignment until it becomes embedded in the culture,” she said.

Working model challenges

Keogh added that companies with hybrid models face additional challenges because in-office presenteeism or proximity bias could still be a factor.

“If hybrid for a company means part of the workforce is in the office and part is out of it, then you run the risk of evaluating employees on different factors,” she said.

“Companies who do hybrid well will track promotions of those based in the office and not to identify if there is a gap. If there is a gap, they will explore the reasoning and build solutions. Distance bias training is a factor here, as well as one output-based performance review system for every employee.”

While the remote working revolution was, in theory, supposed to lead to an overhaul of workplace practices, the reality is many companies are still wading through uncharted waters.

Keogh said this has led to a lack of decision-making or commitment to a new way of working, meaning old management styles are returning for some and remote working is thought of on an ad-hoc basis.

“Without implementing the programmes to adapt the culture, this model is unlikely to work for employees, the employer and indeed our local communities,” she said.

“When a shift towards remote is done well, it is underpinned by a change management programme towards a remote-first culture. This means that whether people are in the office, a co-working space or at home, the location is irrelevant to performance. Usually companies realise quickly that they are unsure how to track performance and need to switch to measuring performance based on output.”

‘The nine-to-five is dead’

The report from Qatalog and GitLab also highlighted a disconnect between C-suite executives and less senior knowledge workers when it came to how and when they work.

Asynchronous was defined in the report as “when people work during different times of the day, without the expectation of immediately responding to others, allowing employees to get work done at a time that suits them”.

Almost three-quarters (74pc) of those in the C-suite said they work asynchronously often or always. This dropped significantly for more junior employees, with only 32pc of those at manager or consultant level working asynchronously and only 24pc of those in analyst or administrative roles doing so.

Qatalog founder and CEO Tariq Rauf said these junior workers may be overworking just to prove they’re working hard enough.

“In stark contrast, C-suite execs know they can work on their own schedule, without fear of questions from their team. That’s why we’ve seen this new system of privilege emerge, where senior staff feel empowered to work asynchronously, while not extending the same freedom and flexibility to their team members,” he said.

“There’s no excuse for such an enormous disparity, and business leaders need to make much more effort to build a culture and provide the tools that enable asynchronous work for all.

For centuries, our daily lives have been built around the traditional working day, but this will soon become another relic of the past. The nine-to-five is dead, and businesses will have to adapt to this new reality or die because the best talent wants and expects it.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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