Virtual presenteeism isn’t just bad for staff, it’s bad for business

As employees and learners shift their focus to completing more ‘tasks’ to prove their presence behind the desk, the value ascribed to quiet ‘thinking’ time diminishes – but without this time, creativity and innovation suffer

Over a year into the work from home revolution, reports of a new kind of presenteeism have started to creep into the zeitgeist. As employers lose direct sight of employees, some have reacted with a desire for constant monitoring of employee productivity and surveillance. Employees, meanwhile, are feeling anxious that if they aren’t constantly online and visibly productive, they will be seen as a slacker. With that, ‘virtual presenteeism’ has been born.

Most employers are not investing in the kind of extreme surveillance software which has sparked the most media outrage. Nonetheless, large numbers of remote employees are feeling the pressure to not only make it clear they are online, often far beyond their working hours, but also to show they are producing something tangible. This way, no one can accuse them of sitting with their feet up watching Netflix whilst firing out a few emails.

The welfare implications of people feeling the need to work ever-longer hours, without a proper ‘switch’ between work and home life, have been well documented. However — beyond the negative impact on overall productivity, motivation, and morale — less has been said about how bad this approach is for businesses.

Dreaming of ‘down time’

It’s often said that learning is as much about what you get from your peers as from your teachers. The same is true of working, in that long-term value often comes as much from discussion and ‘down time’ as from more measurable productivity. The problem is that in a remote setting, crucial thinking time is — at least in the short-term — hard to distinguish from someone not working at all. Many employees are aware of this, especially those at more junior levels, and as a result try to fill as much time as possible completing tasks that make them visibly and unquestionably productive.

“The problem is that in a remote setting, crucial thinking time is — at least in the short-term — hard to distinguish from someone not working at all”

This may seem like a win for businesses, who are perhaps getting more output from staff than they were in the office. However, businesses with this kind of culture will be hampered by short-sightedness at all levels, as very few people will be thinking about progress in the long term, or innovating with different approaches, processes, and strategies. New ideas are the lifeblood of truly market-leading businesses; if people are not given permission and space to let their brains turn without the pressure of some more immediate job to do, then companies will find themselves falling behind.

“New ideas are the lifeblood of truly market-leading businesses…”

Nurturing creativity

Creating an agile, ideas-centric culture isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The most important thing to do is to make it clear to your people that you value their creativity, and know they need time to let it flourish — whilst also understanding that not every brainstorming session will lead to a breakthrough. Some easy interventions will ensure everyone appreciates the importance of this ‘invisible’ productivity.

Perhaps most crucial is to make sure that all managers, whatever their seniority, know that the business is prioritising creative thinking time and ring-fencing it. This might look like putting in calls for teams to chat generally around a subject to ideate, or a weekly time allocation for everyone to block out in their diaries in an effort to have time to think by themselves. The most important thing is to make sure this time isn’t being eaten up by other things, which can feel like more of a priority.

At Avado, we’ve seen how well this works not only amongst our people, but also with our learners. Completing a task can be a great way to test learning, proving whether we are able to put theoretical knowledge to work in practice, but it usually isn’t learning in and of itself. Our brains process things in strange ways, working away on something in the background whilst we seem to be engaging in a completely unrelated activity. Handing learners and staff alike the autonomy and time to consider problems or process information in whatever way works best for them is a benefit to everyone involved.

“At a macro-level, to make remote working and learning sustainable long-term, we need to shift from outputs to outcomes”

At a macro-level, to make remote working and learning sustainable long-term, we need to shift from outputs to outcomes. Every person in a business has a part to play in its success, but people need the capacity to contribute to the fullest. Making sure these people have time to develop and articulate their thoughts is the only way businesses can move from doing what they have always done to finding a new path into the future.

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