Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Presenteeism Won't Go Away

If the Covid pandemic has taught us anything about work, it's that we don't need to be pulling long hours in an office to be productive. 

And yet, presenteeism will still be just as important. 

Sure, WFH is providing bosses and workers alike with an overdue opportunity to re-evaluate this ingrained presenteeism. 

And we've long known presenteeism is problematic: it can cost a nation's economy tens of billions of dollars as sick people drag themselves into the office and infect others; it creates toxic environments that lead to overwork, as people putting in long hours piles pressure on everyone else to do the same. We know it's productivity that matters, not being chained to your desk or computer. 

And now, presenteeism is simply going digital: people are working longer than ever, responding to emails and messages at all hours of the day to show how 'engaged' they are. And, even if bosses call workers back into the office, evidence is mounting that we perhaps haven’t moved the dial on presenteeism at all. 

Indeed, according to Bryan Lufkin in his piece “Why presenteeism wins out over productivity”, presenteeism is still being emphasized. 

It’s not that bosses are hungering to hover over workers as they toil. Rather, subconscious biases keep the practice intact – and unless we do a better job acknowledging its harm, and set up workplaces to discourage it, we’re likely to be slaves to presenteeism forever. 

Clinging to a presenteeism culture just favors those “who have the time to show up early and leave late”, says Brandy Aven, associate professor of organizational theory, strategy and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, US. Aven also points out that this can unfairly favor some workers over others – parents may have no choice but to leave early, for example. 

And there are some indications that people who don't put in face time may actually get penalized. For example, although almost unfathomable now, telecommuting has generally been stigmatized as irresponsible, and has subsequently held some workers back. A 2019 study, for example, found that telecommuting workers who worked at companies in which remote work was unusual experienced slower salary growth. 

These factors can create the fear that a lack of physical office presence will stunt success. And the normalization of remote work amid the pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed this; in 2020, researchers from human-resources software company ADP found that 54% of British workers felt obliged to physically come into the office at some point during the pandemic, especially those in their early-and mid-careers, despite the rise in flexible working. 

Leigh Thompson, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business, US, says there are two key psychological phenomena that fuel presenteeism. 

The first is the ‘mere-exposure effect’, which holds that the more a person is exposed to someone or something, the more they start to grow affinity. 

“If I've seen one person 10 times for every one time I’ve seen somebody else, I'm just naturally going to like them more”, explains Thompson. 

If a particular worker makes themselves more visible, they may naturally ingratiate themselves to others just by being there – even if the others don't realize it, or can’t pinpoint what is it they like about the ‘presentee’. “[You might say],'I don't know, I like their smile, I like their attitude – they're leadership material’”, says Thompson. 

And, before you know it, the presentee might get a raise or promotion. 

This bias exists alongside another psychological concept called the ‘halo effect’: associating positive impressions of someone with their actual character. 

“You start to think of the person who's bringing you coffee or asking about your weekend as maybe ‘a sweet guy’ – but then I take the mental step of thinking you're a productive worker, too”, says Thompson. “You're nice, and then I immediately bloom that out to, ‘the guy must be a hard worker as well’ – even though you've given me no evidence in this coffee-cup situation to make me think that you're a hard worker”. 

This can lead to promotions or other benefits going to in-person workers. Ironically, despite the potential rewards of showing your face at the office, workers aren’t actually necessarily more productive when they’re putting in that face time or working overtime. 

Still, workers feel the need to perform – both in person and now digitally – since managers don’t necessarily know their workers aren’t actually accomplishing anything extra. 

In fact, during the pandemic, the number of hours worked around the world have gone up, not down. In 2020, over the course of the year, average daily working hours increased by more than a half hour on average. 

The idea is, if everyone else is online, I need to be, too. Many bosses only see the most visible people, so they assume those are the most productive employees. After all, how do you really measure a person’s output? 

So, in lieu of something measurable, managers tend to think workers are producing as long as they’re at their desks. 

Workers know managers value this visibility – and so they fall into the presenteeism trap, especially as they see their peers doing the same. This is especially true in times of economic vulnerability – such as we’re experiencing right now, due to Covid-19 – when workers fear the stability of their jobs. They work because they want to prove they can tough out stress and excel, as well as be reliable. 

However, this may not be good, not only for staff members but also their organization. In the UK, for instance, 35 workdays are lost per worker per year in the UK due to presenteeism, and one 2014 paper from a Stanford University study, “The Productivity of Working Hours” also shows that productivity plummets after working more than 50 hours a week. 

I do believe a top-down overhaul of what’s valued in the workplace has become necessary.

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