Business/Economy

Digital presenteeism: Faking you’re there, and faking that you care

A surprising number of employees, determined to hold onto their work-from-home status and aware that managers and others suspect remote employees of working less than their required hours, practice “digital presenteeism.” It involves remote employees demonstrating they’re hard workers by responding to more emails, attending additional online meetings and contributing comments in every meeting.

According to a recent job trends report, the average remote employee works 67 additional minutes daily in an effort to convince managers they’re fully engaged in their jobs. The same report reveals that a record 85% of managers find it difficult to know for sure if their remote employees are productive.

The problem: These actions erode morale and don’t equate with higher productivity. Said one midlevel manager who called me this week: “Every manager I know considers our company’s weekly all-manager team meetings a waste of time. Still, my peers and I enthusiastically participate, offer ideas and claim excitement over the new initiatives our leaders suggest. As a result, we’re all working on time-sucking task forces that allegedly ‘drive our company forward’ when we could be doing meaningful work.”

Although it’s a post-pandemic trend and one that’s accelerated as many employees fear the potential of recession-related layoffs, digital presenteeism grew out of in-office presenteeism, which occurs when employees too ill or injured to fully function still report to work. Although many “future of work” researchers hypothesized that remote work would eliminate management’s focus on “butts in chairs” — the assumption that the productive employees spent eight hours daily chained to their desks — presenteeism didn’t die, it mutated.

According to Harvard Business Review, presenteeism costs the U.S. economy more than $150 billion a year in lost productivity, far surpassing annual absenteeism costs. Multiple other studies document that presenteeism costs employers 10 times what absenteeism costs.

The reasons presenteeism harms workplaces are obvious. When employees show up at work less than fully functional, they work more slowly than usual, make an increased number of mistakes, and later must redo shoddy work. These factors cut employee productivity by one-third or more.

Given presenteeism’s downsides, that it erodes productivity along with employee morale, what actions do employers need to take?

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Managers need to learn how to assess employee productivity by focusing on results, not activities. This requires a shift in thinking for many. During a recent client project, I interviewed a supervisor who proudly viewed himself “on the ball” and “on top of it.” As proof, he said, “I expect my employees to respond within an hour when I email them. If they don’t, they’re not at their desk doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The net result: His employees obsessively kept an eye on their inboxes and viewed their number one job duty as responding to his emails, killing their initiative and morale, and eroding productivity and retention. The needed shift for managers can be accomplished if they identify the results they view as meeting expectations and the achievements and the actions they view as going beyond and beyond the minimum.

Next, leaders need to allow employees, with exceptions, to log off when they end the workday. One simple fix: They can save the emails they send employees in their “draft” folders until the next workday starts. If managers send emails throughout the evening and weekend, many employees feel they need to stay in front of their computer screens into the night to prove they take their jobs seriously.

Employees need to make changes as well. Employees who proactively communicate upward -- “Here’s what I’m working on” -- keep managers abreast of their results, obstacles and often their missteps. Employees need to participate in meetings with relevant comments and not simply search their brains so they can comment, whether or not they believe what they say.

Digital presenteeism is a trend without a positive purpose. Has it invaded your company?

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully,” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is president of Communication Works Inc. Send questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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