Category Archives: Presenteeism

Being present isn’t the same as being visible!

A recent article in the Economist ” Working from home: out of sight out of mind ”  highlighted the negative impact that a flexible work place culture can have on individual employee’s promotion prospects,  if they are home-based.  But the piece also prompted  a wider debate, as a number of people went to great lengths to share with me!

Nothing new

Marianne commented “This concept of “invisibility” within organisations has been with us for some time and isn’t just associated with the development of new technology! An employee can be forgotten even when surrounded by co-workers  and any number  of corporate situations can cause employees to become invisible”

  • Alone in a crowd: employees in large organisations  tell me that despite belonging to a massive global workforce, where their bosses walk past them every day and they are surrounded by co-workers ,  they can feel as isolated as if they worked on their own. This can be related to personality type, leadership style, the function being carried out and quality of co-worker relationships. Laura says “I work in a small team involved in technical regulatory affairs. We are only 5 in total,  but all have separate offices and work on different, discrete projects. Because of the management style of the head of unit, we could all go for days without direct inter-action Even though I am the most junior I have started to organise lunches and meetings,  in case I would go mad!”
  • Non glory functions : most organisations have sexy or  high-profile glory functions which can be sales, events or innovation depending on the nature of the business. Back-office functions while critical to business operations, have low visibility in many organisations.  Imagine working in compliance for an international logistics company! ” Paul told me ”  I have to make a real effort to meet colleagues outside my own department as well as my co-workers in other locations,  otherwise I would sink into oblivion. I also run the company cycling team which helps cut across functional barriers!  This is where the backroom nerd can be as visible as the most successful rainmaker”
  •  An overseas assignment – is for many an opportunity of a lifetime, not just a career.  It is important to take into account early on,  the role offered and how this function relates to the core business activity of the organisation.  Peter, a Sales Director for a global pharmaceutical company was offered a regional general  management position in Dubai. Although he and his family loved living in U.A.E., he was very mindful of a need to stay connected to key personnel in the company HQ to make sure he was not relegated to the role of regional expert. He was offered and accepted a second tour, but turned down a third 3 year stint.  “ Running a regional team was great experience, but I was very aware, despite my best efforts, that I was becoming “Our man in Dubai” which was taking me out of mainstream business management. I became too valuable for my local knowledge and  was falling off the  central radar. Eventually  I had to leave the company to stop being sidelined in U.A.E.”
  • Regional roles – many companies like hi-po executives to do a stint at grass-roots level at a production unit or regional office. But sometimes a posting in another town can create the same distance psychologically as another country.  Lisa told me “ I had a great chance to run a business unit. It gave P & L responsibility, manufacturing experience as well as heading up a technical team. But at the same time I had to fight pretty hard to be invited to the sales conferences and for inclusion in some other key meetings

All commentators mentioned the importance of  an ongoing need to raise or maintain visibility within their own departments, functions and organisations with both bosses and colleagues equally, to avoid a drift into oblivion . There is also a need to sustain a connection to the centres of power and decision-making, wherever they might be, to stay on the corporate career progression radar.

Being present isn’t the same as being visible, or even being heard! None of these are necessarily related to new technology or changing workplace practises!

The downside of presenteeism

Presenteeism has crept into modern day business vocabulary and is now listed as a new word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as “presenteeism (noun): working when sick especially to avoid the stigma of being absent. ”  Research about the negative impact of this trend is significant,  with an estimated impact on workplace effectiveness and productivity amounting to billions.

Missed point
The focus has hitherto been on the health aspect of the definition,  which is of course completely understandable.

But perhaps a little brazenly I think we’re missing the main point.

For me, the key part of the definition is ” to avoid the stigma of being absent“. This extends the insidious and more extensive reach of presenteeism beyond macho, masters of the universe,   boiler room cultures,  into business practises, which many of us encounter every day, as organisations become  “lean, mean and keen”.

  • Not taking vacations  – despite all the occupational health information about the value of annual holidays, even in countries with statutory entitlement provisions  – many still don’t take their full quotas.
  • Staying late when there is no work to be done  – I have much first hand anecdotal evidence to suggest that this practise is rife and that employees who work their contracted hours are viewed negatively, even if there is no specific deadline to meet.
  • Working to unnecessarily tight deadlines set by disorganised management or power playing superiors.
  • Working late and at weekends to avoid seeming uncommitted.  Technology has created a culture of 24/7 availability and those who don’t respond to messages on their iPhones within nano seconds are perceived to be “slackers”.  I have one contact who stores his emails and sends them out at what would be post business hours in various global time zones,  to give an impression of super  diligence.
  • Skipping lunch  –   the ” lunch is for wimps” mentality is prevalent in many organisations, with one connection fainting with hypoglycemia after working for 9 hours without eating.  Many eat unhealthy snacks at their desk which drains energy and reduces output.

The fallout from this culture reaches and impacts entire workforces and in particular those who can’t subscribe to this charade and for any number of reasons have to work their contracted hours.  Working mothers are one category to feel the judgement heat.  Anyone who knows any working mum  (or who has been one)  understands all too well,  that even if they work part-time,  this phrase generally refers to compensation,  rather than the hours worked, while the workload managed almost certainly hovers around 100%.

Victoria Pynchon  highlights this in her  Forbes  piece where she boldly talks about the amount of  “face-time ”  wasted in her career,  suggesting that having a family  might have forced her  “  … to work in a more focused manner, to organize myself and my working teams better”  But truthfully having  children isn’t a prerequisite for being focused, although it is certainly necessary .

But on a general workplace level isn’t it time to over turn this outdated culture , which  all research suggests leads to a  dramatic decrease in individual and therefore organisational productivity.  Or as Brendan S  maintains  that  as offices are inherently inefficient places   we should be measuring productivity by the results obtained and not the hours spent at a desk.

The irony is that “presenteeism ” does eventually lead to “absenteeism”,  with stress from heavy workloads and job insecurity fears,  being the highest causes of  sickness absence.

Or will we reach a situation such as we see with the Apple manufacturers in China where shamefully,  a new spin on workplace Health and Safety  is to install safety nets  around their buildings to reduce the suicide rate.

Being present isn’t a barometer of value.

What do you think?