Is virtual presenteeism turning remote work toxic?

Last updated on 
September 15, 2020

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As millions of people get used to working from home, the realities of the work model are starting to sink in. In spite of the positive effect remote work has on productivity, many are realizing that – when it’s not managed correctly – it can also lead to stress and burnout. And now another issue is being linked to remote work: presenteeism. While traditionally presenteeism was associated with office work, a new version has adapted to our digital world: virtual presenteeism. But what exactly is virtual presenteeism – and is it creating a toxic office culture in a remote setting?

What is virtual presenteeism?

To understand virtual presenteeism, we first need to understand “traditional” presenteeism. The term “presenteeism” was coined to describe the problem of employees continuing to come into the office even when they were sick or injured – but the meaning has since evolved to include people who turn up to work physically, but aren’t engaged psychologically. An employee can arrive at work on time, sit in front of their screen, and stay at their desk longer than they need to – yet still not really achieve anything with that time. They’re not motivated or more productive, being present only in terms of their body. The cost of this is huge: around $150 billion in the US each year; $26 billion in the UK.

As businesses ramp up remote work, the problem of presenteeism is going home with their employees. Even though this issue is now a virtual one, it doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, more people than ever are being impacted by this new form of presenteeism – and the insidious nature of virtual presenteeism is actually part of the problem. For people who are new to remote working, it’s natural to feel a bit lost, or to have a niggling feeling that because you’re at home, you need to prove that you are really working – not just lying on the sofa with your laptop open. It takes time to adapt to remote work, but many new remote employees never get that breathing space.

A new Canada Life survey showed that 46% of people who started working remotely during lockdown felt more pressure to be present, with 35% stating they continued working even though they weren’t well. Of the employees who carried on working while sick, 40% said it was because they didn’t feel they were sick enough to justify a day off – though 26% said it was because their workload was too full to take a day off. A further 16% said they carried on working because they were afraid of being made redundant.

Why is virtual presenteeism such a problem?

On the surface, it may seem strange that virtual presenteeism is such a problem. After all, working from home is meant to be flexible. But does remote work really suit everyone the way that flexible working suggests? Swapping smart clothes for loungewear and an office desk for a kitchen table is one thing, but if we’re expected to work in the same way as we do in the office, it’s not really flexible at all. But the issue is that most people don’t feel they’re expected to work in the same way; they feel expected to work more. Lack of visibility is a common downside for even seasoned remote workers, and for all the new remote workers struggling to adjust, it’s the crux of the problem.

If you feel that you, and your work, are invisible, you may feel the need to go the extra mile. So you answer messages out of hours to prove you’re committed. You work longer days, keeping your Slack status as “available” and sending periodic emails so everyone can see you’re still working. And all this is on top of the usual predicaments related to the lack of boundaries between work and home. When you live where you work, there’s no buffer between personal and professional – and when your laptop is always within arm’s reach, it’s normal to feel the need to be constantly contactable. Adding in the problem of virtual presenteeism can cause the blurred lines between work and home to become invisible.

But none of these factors even need to exist for virtual presenteeism to cause harm. If a company has a problem with office presenteeism, this problem won’t suddenly disappear just because everyone has gone home to work; instead, office presenteeism will just mutate into virtual presenteeism. Nothing’s been solved – it’s just been swept under the carpet. Bad office culture simply becomes bad remote work culture – only this time, the problem is bigger, and the harm it can cause – like stress, anxiety, exhaustion and poor health – is even greater.

How to counter virtual presenteeism

To counter virtual presenteeism, it’s essential for companies to reassess their workplace culture and consider how they can best support remote workers. Effective remote management is vital, and all managers should take time to establish a clear communication structure, so everyone knows the purpose of each communication platform and is confident about when they’re expected to be available – and when they’re expected not to be. On top of that, managers should regularly check in with employees to make sure they’re not under pressure, take time to offer support and encouragement, and ensure there’s plenty of social interaction.

Developing a robust remote-first culture can take more time, but if you want to counter virtual presenteeism and protect your remote employees, it’s essential. Employees should be aware that it isn’t the quantity of work they’re doing that matters; it’s the quality. Trust is a critical component to any healthy workplace culture and the minute employees feel distrusted or micromanaged, they start feeling the need to emphasize how present they are. If a company promotes a trusting, healthy work culture, its employees should never feel defensive.

Also important is transparency. Communication should be transparent and asynchronous (most of the time) so everything is searchable, which further helps boost trust. Visibility over your remote team is key too, as it ensures everyone has a healthy workload. As the Canada Life survey showed, when people feel overworked they don’t feel they can take days off, even if they’re ill. By keeping track of everyone's workload and work hours, you can make sure everyone’s at a healthy capacity and help prevent burnout.  

Above all, take time to foster a workplace culture that understands and prioritizes the importance of switching off – one where employees feel comfortable logging out for the day and don’t feel the need to even check their emails... let alone reply.  

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