We need to talk about presence

For many knowledge workers, work has largely been remote for more than a year now.  ‘Being seen’ in the current context mostly means appearing on a Zoom screen.  The somewhat less healthy side of being seen is of course the late night email, or the out of hours response to a Team message. 

Presenteeism has been a problem forever.  According to this research by Deloitte, presenteeism cost UK employers between £27bn to £29bn every year.  In that context, they are focusing on the costs of people attending work whilst ill, but it’s not the only form of needing to be seen that causes problems.  There’s leavism too – employees feeling like they need to keep in touch and deal with work matters when on some form of leave, whether that is holiday, TOIL or family leave. 

There’s also another form of presenteeism. A particularly problematic form of presenteeism, especially when it comes to inclusion and wellbeing. The one that is about face time in order to get on and progress. Needing to be seen in order to be thought well of, rewarded or recognised.

In flexible working research we often talk of the ideal worker norm. The right sort of chap (because it often is easier for men to comply) who puts the time in and does not have any of this pesky family or life stuff to call him away from his office based endeavours. Ideal workers can be seen; remote and flexible workers, not quite as much.

We are all talking hybrid right now.  And this ‘face time’ form of presenteeism is going to present us with new challenges.  All too often we conflate presence with performance.  We assume that those who are at their desk, putting the hours in, are doing good work. Unconscious biases are at play in how we judge the performance and attitudes of the people we work with.  Proximity bias is just one of them; our tendency to favour what we are closest too in time or space.  With proximity bias, there is the potential for managers to favour or default to those that are in the office, and exclude those who are working from home or working different hours. Maybe those in the office will get more information or access to better projects or opportunities. Maybe they will just be assigned ‘ideal worker’ status.

Pre-pandemic research has identified the problems that can arise when employees don’t get enough face time.  When they are not as seen or as present as others. This research was often undertaken in the context of completely remote employees, geographically distant from the main office location. The data shows that managers are influenced by who they can see, and unconsciously assign positive traits to them.  This is magnified when that visible presence takes place outside of normal working hours.  These workers are seen as more committed, dedicated, dependable. I especially like this quote from one of the research papers:

You only need to be observed at work.  No information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it’.  (Elsbach and Cable, 2012). 

What does this all mean for the potential future of hybrid work?  Bottom line, you get credit for being in the office.  There’s a risk therefore that those who are physically present in the workplace more regularly will be judged more favourably, especially when it comes to reward and recognition. New data out this week from the ONS also demonstrates this.  They found that people who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other workers between 2012 and 2017 and people who mainly worked from home were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared with those who never worked from home between 2013 and 2020.

We may end up with a number of inclusion issues in the future as a result of these particular biases and beliefs.  Those who cannot come into the office as much (possibly including those with caring responsibilities or employees living with disabilities) will lose out. So will those who request or need a very fixed hybrid pattern (such as parents, to accommodate childcare routines).  Being in the office might become a sign of dedication and commitment – with the accompanying rewards.

What is the answer to this? Unfortunately there is no simple or quick solution.  We can educate managers on the potential for unconscious bias when assessing the performance of remote and hybrid staff.  We can also monitor reward, recognition and promotion programmes to identify any issues that might be occurring.  Finally, we need to manage performance on contribution, outcome and results – and put this at the centre of manager training.  Where possible, include 360 degree or peer to peer feedback in performance evaluations too (but noting that bias doesn’t just reside with managers, but colleagues too). 

And finally….. if getting seen is the key to career and financial rewards, employees who work from home regularly should probably consider sending emails late at night, putting in some visible hours over the weekend, and responding promptly to messages and notifications, wherever or whenever they are, in order to demonstrate their commitment. 

Oh, wait……. 

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