It's almost hard to imagine a time in which people spent at least 40 hours a week in a physical office (and often even longer to impress the boss). But in the pre-pandemic workforce, this kind of ‘presenteeism’ – being physically in your seat at work just to look dedicated, no matter how unproductive – was just another fact of office life. Before the pandemic, data from one UK survey showed that 80% of workers said presenteeism existed in their workplace, with a quarter of the respondents saying it had got worse since the prior year.
But now, remote work has provided bosses and workers alike with an overdue opportunity to re-evaluate this ingrained presenteeism. 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 it's a conversation we've been having for years.
Yet, despite a golden chance to ditch the practise amid a new work world, the emphasis on presenteeism is alive and kicking. Now, presenteeism has simply gone 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, as bosses call workers back into the office, evidence is mounting that we perhaps haven’t moved the dial on presenteeism at all.
So, despite what we know, why is presenteeism still so emphasised? It’s not simply that bosses are hungering to hover over workers as they toil. Rather, subconscious biases keep the practise 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.
Why managers still fall for presenteeism
Clinging to a presenteeism culture just favours those “who have the time to show up early and leave late”, says Brandy Aven, associate professor of organisational theory, strategy and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, US. Aven also points out that this can unfairly favour some workers over others – parents may have no choice but to leave early, for example.
Yet as bad as presenteeism is, there are some indications that people who don't put in face time may actually get penalised. For example, although almost unfathomable now, telecommuting has generally been stigmatised 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.
Presenteeism has been long ingrained in office culture, even though research shows that working extra hours doesn't actually equate to more productivity (Credit: Getty Images)
These factors can alarm workers, many of whom have come to fear that a lack of physical office presence will stunt success. And the normalisation 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 organisations 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 realise 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.
Showing up for the sake of it
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.
As bad as presenteeism is, there are some indications that people who don't put in face time may actually get penalised
This is a relatively new problem. Back when the economy was more manufacturing-centric, it was easier to measure tangible outcomes: this gets built, this doesn’t. But “as we've shifted to a knowledge economy, it's much squishier to measure what output actually looks like”, says Scott Sonenshein, professor of organisational behaviour at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston, Texas. 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 visibly – 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 instability – 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 ultimately backfires, since the quality of workers’ output suffers as a result of this rush to perform. In the UK, for instance, 35 workdays are lost per worker per year in the UK due to presenteeism, and research also shows that productivity plummets after working more than 50 hours a week.
How to stamp out presenteeism
Now, in an era in which work practices have undergone seismic transformations, and have triggered unprecedented scrutiny, there’s an urgent need to reduce the emphasis on presenteeism, both physically and digitally. Even though more workers don't have a place to physically be present, many still feel like they need to be virtually present at all times.
But, like burnout, which also fundamentally threatens the way we work, fixing huge, existential issues including presenteeism requires a big, top-down overhaul of what’s valued in the workplace and why.
Although presenteeism has traditional manifested in offices, the pandemic has given rise to a new digital presenteeism, with employees constantly 'on' (Credit: Getty Images)
Sonenshein says a great place to start is for workers, especially leaders, to model healthier behaviour. Once people are finished for the day, leave. Log off. Workers who hang around just to be performative can pressure other workers to do the same, which creates a vicious, toxic cycle.
That’s easier said than done, of course. This is why the impetus is also on managers to be more aware of why presenteeism happens – by learning about their own biases, and about phenomena like the mere-exposure and halo effects. Experts also advocate for better, clearer metrics teams can use to measure productivity beyond “who leaves the office last” or “who's responding to emails at daybreak”.
Thompson says a great place to start is simply by looking at raw performance: “I think bosses and supervisors need to ask themselves a priori; ‘Here's what my team’s going to be working on next month, or next quarter. What are my baseline expectations, and who is going above and beyond them’?"
The sad truth is, though, that the hallmarks of presenteeism still exist in this new world of work. ”That's not sustainable. People are going to eventually burn out – this has been a big struggle for people for the last 15 months,” says Sonenshein. “It’s this arms race for who seems to work the most.” That the behaviour has transferred from physical desks to online shows how deeply it's ingrained in our work lives.
“You would hope that during a pandemic, there would be a switch.” But, without a good hard look at our ingrained biases, transformation may be tough. “Unfortunately,” says Sonenshein, “I'm not sure things are really going to change.”