Presenteeism: Why Are We Still Rewarding Presence In The Office?

My friend was not impressed. A 5pm conference call that was scheduled to last two hours. So instead of using his office phone, he dialled in on his mobile. At 6, he left work, still on the call. He walked to the train station, took the train home, got tea organised for his kids, and checked his daughter’s homework. His colleagues were still in their respective offices when the call finally finished at 7.30pm, and he didn’t broadcast the fact that he was no longer in his – it might have been seen as lacking commitment. But really, isn’t that a smarter way to work – shouldn’t we applaud this rather than seeing it as somehow cheating?

Presenteeism is the term usually used to describe turning up at work in spite of illness, but it also refers to the practice of working long hours when there’s no real need to do so. Staying in the office because everyone else does. And everyone else is staying there, because, well, everyone else does.

Why are employers rewarding presence in the office above all else? It is because it’s more instantly measurable than any actual results? Is it because companies genuinely believe they’re getting more out of staff who are present in the office for long hours? Is it because it ticks a box – employees are here, so we must be doing something right – who cares if they’re spending half the day on Facebook?

Or is it just a habit, leading to a vicious circle – a manager who stays late because she feels it’s her responsibility to turn out the light, and a team staying late because their manager does?

I used to stay late. Some days I stayed because I was busy. Other days I stayed – well, just because. Because it wasn’t six o’clock yet, because some of the team were still there, because I wasn’t really rushing anywhere, because it was a habit and I didn’t have a strong reason to break it.

image: pixabay
image: pixabay

For me the change was having children – I didn’t have the option to stay late anymore. So on busy days, I’d log back in at home, and on quiet days, I’d enjoy the quiet. And my work still got done. Which leads me to question the hundreds of hours I’ve worked unnecessarily over the years – I could have invented the next multi-million-dollar app if I’d used my time more wisely (and if I knew how to invent apps).

Although I didn’t lead by example back in the day, I did actively encourage people to leave the office when their work was done (possibly from the self-interested angle that I’d get out sooner if I convinced everyone else to leave). And while this is the culture in many workplaces, there are many more where staying late is expected, regardless of whether or not there is any critical work to be done. An attitude of “You can’t expect to progress if you don’t put in the hours” – even if those extra hours function mostly to tick a box. And particularly during the recession, who was going to argue?


Of course, it is arguable that to get ahead, there’s no way around it – you have to put in the time. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo famously worked as many as 130 hours some weeks, while Twitter founder Jack Dorsey spent sixteen to twenty hours a day at work at one point. For the rest of us, who are not expecting to take over the world, but nevertheless want to be successful in our chosen careers, shouldn’t working smarter rather than longer be what matters?

Richard Branson recently announced that Virgin staff could take unlimited leave, as long as their absence wouldn’t damage the business. The leave won’t be tracked – employers are trusted to take it when they need it, without abusing it. Whether this is a headline grabbing initiative that lacks substance or a genuine attempt at a progressive means to increase productivity, it does raise the topic of presenteeism, and the question of what’s really important in the workplace – hours or output.

In his TED talk on the subject of motivation, Dan Pink refers to the notion of Results Only Work Environment:

“In a ROWE people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them … What happens? Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up …”

The idea is that it doesn’t matter where you are or for how long – if you achieve results, your job is done.

Admittedly there are many roles and industries in which this wouldn’t work. You can’t teach a class or nurse a ward full of patients from your kitchen table. And even in the office-based world, there are jobs that couldn’t be done on a ROWE basis.

But so many could, and so many employers are afraid of the idea. The assumption that working from home means sitting on the couch watching Jeremy Kyle. The idea that leaving early and logging back in from home later is somehow less efficient than sitting in the office until an appointed time, or until the boss puts on her coat.

There are certainly individual people for whom a ROWE wouldn’t work and many would freely admit that they need the discipline of an office environment in order to work productively. But there is no argument for encouraging employees to stay in the office for needless additional hours. And in an age where taking part in a conference call by mobile phone while getting tea ready for the kids is easily done, then why not take advantage of that?

Smart employers measure results, not hours; smart employers recognise productivity over presence. And very smart employers give their staff unlimited, unrecorded time off, then sit back and watch while they work harder and longer than ever.

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16 thoughts on “Presenteeism: Why Are We Still Rewarding Presence In The Office?”

  1. I really couldn’t agree more. I used to work late pre-kids too, getting more done when everyone else was gone home. I also took longer coffee breaks and lunch breaks then. I occasionally get to work from home now and find I get so much more done.
    In my opinion it’s based on two things (1) a culture of presenteeism and (2) a lack of trust on employers’ (or even managers’) parts when it comes to allowing more flexible arrangements. There’s a fear that someone like your friend is taking advantage but they can’t see the people dossing under their noses as they’re in the pffice. Great piece.
    Bumbles of Rice recently posted…Shove off Summer, I’m ready for AutumnMy Profile

    1. Thanks Sinead. And there’s something inherently wrong with the lack of trust – if the only way an employer can trust that a job is being done well is by being able to literally see the person sitting in the office, there’s a bigger problem at the core.

  2. That’s something we used to discuss a lot in the office, I used to have SUPER flexible working arrengements, I could have worked from Italy or Spain if I wanted to. As long as the job got done and I was available when needed, my manager didn’t care where I was. At the same time people in the same company but in a different department wouldn’t even be allowed to work from home occassionally (and this had nothing to do with the type of work they were doing). Abolishing permanent desks and encouraging people to work from home was one of the big initiatives the leadership team in this company was running so to me it looked like it was about the managers and them being uncomfortable with the idea of managing employees who work remotely.. They would have had to change the way they work (instead of ticking the box they’d really have to be aware of what exactly their employees are doing, how they do it etc).

    Oh and those 5pm meetings, scheduled to run for two hours… Used to drive me bonkers! If you can cook dinner and help with homework at the same time, makes you wonder how important those meetings really are 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I used to do that too (no option and had to be present for whatever reason) but my contribution to those meetings would have been somewhere around none!

    1. That’s a very good point Mirva – I agree – a lot comes down to individual managers and how comfortable they are with managing. And yes, if a particular manager is used to a box-ticking style, I can see why managing remote employees might be daunting. How frustrating for the employees who are perfectly capable of working productively wherever whenever, but are restricted for that reason.
      And yes, I agree that meetings where no response is required and during which you can help with homework, are somewhat nonsensical and often a waste of time!

  3. I wholeheartedly agree too much emphasis is placed on being present in an office.

    I have been working from home for six years both for myself and as an employee. It is a constant battle to break the idea that working from home is somehow an easier gig or allows you to get away with no childcare or that you don’t work as hard as those in the office.

    Your example of your friend strengthens the argument for being present in the office in my opinion. Your friend listened to parts of a conference call, he did not participate because it is impossible to in the scenario you set out above. Cheating is probably too harsh but as a manager or employer I certainly wouldn’t be rewarding him and as an employee who struggles constantly to break the mindset that you need to be in an office to get work down, examples like the above weaken my argument and strengthen the traditional mindset.
    I can multi-task, I can coo some things ( quiet food- no stir frys) whilst on a call provided I am in an empty house. If there are other people at home when I am working, I stick to a quiet room. I can’t supervise homework or even supervise my children when working, that’s not how it works. Its not fair on anyone- children or employer or the people who have two hours out of their day to participate wholly on the call.
    The Clothesline recently posted…Shopping – From Enthusiasm to Desolatation In Under Three Hours.My Profile

    1. But it depends on the type of call. There are many conf calls that require fifteen or twenty participants to be present in case something relevant to them comes up (e.g. a question that is their area of expertise) but their participation isn’t required other than that.
      I’ve been on hundreds of calls like that – usually at my desk and working away on something else at the same time (which where I work is absolutely accepted practice and seen as more efficient than sitting in a meeting room unable to do any other work).
      So the question here is about the call itself – it would probably be far more efficient to have a quick meeting with key stakeholders and then send out questions afterwards, but if the key stakeholders’ time is deemed more important than everyone else’s, then everyone else is expected to join the two hour call in case they’re needed.
      So yes, without the context of the type of call, I see your point, and yes, if he was supposed to be actively listening and taking part, it’s an argument against flex working. But in this case, my friend’s concentration/ participation wasn’t needed. So other than being able to avoid the call altogether, the smartest thing to do was get on with other things rather than sitting in the office for the sake of being seen to sit in the office.

      1. Ok so he wasn’t actually needed to participate in the call? I think my point still remains though. I know in that situation, sods law would dictate, my input would be required as I stepped onto a train or as a child threw their dinner back at me because the pasta was the wrong shape and as a result, the next time, I tried to take a conference call, I would be reminded I need to be actually fully able to take the call. Of course, you can work on other things while listening in but I still think you need to be in a quiet environment not necessarily an office. On the being present thing, you need to be present at home too. On the phone whilst supervising homework or making dinner isn’t being present apart from physically being there. Its something I have been guilty of more times than I care to remember but I had to stop.
        Working from home is very much a learned skill in my experience and you can’t give 100% to the two things in your example at the same time.
        The Clothesline recently posted…School SocksMy Profile

        1. It’s true – in this example, he didn’t actually need to be on the call, but was expected to be there (one of those situations where you can’t object) So a flaw of the whole process really. I read something recently about companies having to start paying for employees’ time spent at meetings (not to the employees but just as an expense) and that it drastically cuts down on unnecessary meetings.
          I do agree that being present at home is critical – I hide my phone when I get in from work for that reason, to stop myself checking it. So yes, having a conference call while supervising homework is definitely not a good idea as a regular way of working!

  4. Unfortunately I work in a company where the majority of managers and directors are close-minded old men who don’t believe in flexible work arrangements, let alone work from home! The other day I struggled to get a half-day for a teacher-parent meeting and even though I knew I would get it I felt I had to justify why I had a meeting, and why I had to go, and that yes, I would still send my boss all the required performance reports he needed before I left. They all seem to think they have to stay at work for 12 hours a day to prove they’re doing something… Yet, I do my 8 hours and my job is done every time. They’re just disguising their lack of time management by staying longer in the office, pretending to be productive. Sorry for the rant, but your post is just spot on… This just opened my eyes, I really need to find a new job (or have a brilliant business idea!).
    Nearly Irish recently posted…Early birthday presentMy Profile

    1. Having read this, and your recent post about “tu” and “vous”, I’m thinking you might be right – time for a new job or a new business!
      That’s very frustrating to have difficulty getting time off for a parent teacher meeting – stress you don’t need. I hope you have time to think about what you want to do and find the right thing for you.

  5. Great post as ever. It is not an option in my profession but I cannot imagine a worse work scenario than putting in the time just to be seen to do so. People should be given their work and expected to complete it, how efficiently they do it should be up to them. The problem may arise in that if you are seen to get your work done quickly then you may be given more work to do, therefore punishing the more time efficient worker instead of questioning the poor time manager. It will be interesting to see if it is a model that will be widely adopted.
    Life on Hushabye Farm recently posted…Before I SleepMy Profile

    1. I do think it must be rewarding to work in a profession where you are either doing something very productive or not there at all, as is the case for you – and something very worthwhile and necessary at that!

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