How your business can tackle the presenteeism problem

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, of course it does that's just how physics works. How about this one, then? If an employee is doing their work, and no one is there to see them, are they still being productive?

These two philosophical conundrums may seem to have obvious answers, but you may be surprised at the attitudes to the latter within some organisations. While logic would dictate that employees can be just as productive outside the office as they are while they're in the building, many managers can be resistant to this idea.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism' is a pervasive problem in offices around the UK, and is rooted in a compulsion to be in the office as much as possible even outside of normal working hours or while ill. One of the reasons it's so widespread is that many organisations are still entrenched in traditional attitudes towards working, where employees are assumed to be getting work done only if they can be seen to be busy.

This translates to situations where, even if employees could very easily accomplish everything they need to from a coffee shop, a client's office or even their own living room, they still come into the office in order to demonstrate their productivity to management.

How can this get in the way of the workplace of the future'?

Where this creates problems is when companies start investing in digital transformation initiatives, adopting strategies like agile and flexible working. The utopian vision of the workplace of the future' is built on the ability of staff to remotely collaborate on tasks from any location, maximising their mobility and ensuring they can be wherever they need to be without sacrificing on productivity, but this vision falls apart if the company insists on clinging to the notion that staff are most efficient when they're chained to a desk.

If managers don't wholeheartedly support flexible and agile working policies, staff will likely minimise their time out of the office, out of fear that the more time they spend away from their desks, the more their bosses will perceive them as somehow skiving off. This totally undermines the whole point of these initiatives, and severely limits the transformative impact they can have on your business.

How can employees address this?

There are many ways for employees to tackle presenteeism within the workplace, but the first is simple: don't give in to it. If your organisation has a stated policy of agile working, buckling to pressure to be in the office more often whether it be outright stated or merely inferred only reinforces the attitude that time out of the building is time wasted. Stick to your guns, and spend as much time working flexibly or remotely as you want within the boundaries of your company's policy, of course.

Employees can also make use of the technology tools they're given to tackle the root causes of presenteeism. Collaboration tools are an essential enabler of agile working, so don't be afraid to use them. If your organisation is using a cross-business instant messaging platform like Cisco's Webex Teams, regularly contributing to discussions and making your presence known can be an excellent way to subtly remind managers that you're still on-message.

Similarly, don't just rely on email to stay in touch with the rest of your team. If you need to chat to a manager or co-worker about something, consider doing it via a video call - it's often quicker than an email chain, and it's also more personal.

The best way for employees to change a culture of presenteeism, however, is by being as productive as possible. Demonstrate the fact that remote workers can be as productive as office-based staff (if not more so) by consistently hitting your targets and accomplishing your daily goals. This will be particularly impactful if you're using a project management tool such as Jira or Trello, where line managers can directly see the tasks that you're completing in real time.

How can managers address presenteeism?

All these behaviours can have a big impact in tackling the root causes of presenteeism, but unfortunately, the fact remains that the change fundamentally needs to be led by the management of an organisation. Trust is the fundamental concern here; if management isn't fully on board with agile working, it's almost certainly because of a lack of it. Either managers don't trust the technology their employees are working with to maximise potential productivity, or they don't trust their staff to work at their normal capacity.

Neither option is good, but the first can be solved fairly simply: train managers in how the tech works. Educate them about the benefits of using it and how to unlock those benefits and all but the most stubborn of luddites will eventually come around and abandon their suspicions.

The latter is sadly more complicated. Managers can try and assuage their doubts by setting KPIs and goals for staff to ensure they're getting everything done that they need to and project management software is an excellent resource for this but at the end of the day, if you don't trust your staff to do their work when you're not actively monitoring them, then it's possibly a sign that they're not a good fit for the team.

Digital transformation is essential for the ongoing survival of modern businesses, but it can't just be confined to your data centre. Organisations need to ensure that they're equipping their staff with the tools to be highly mobile, agile by nature and intensely collaborative, but crucially, they also need to ensure a bond of trust between employee and organisation.

Staff need to be empowered with not just the capability to work from anywhere, but also the knowledge that the business fully supports them in doing so. After all, you wouldn't expect your customers to all be located in the same square mile so why should your staff?

Discover more technology and business insights at Cisco's dedicated hub for small and medium businesses.

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.