- Life Sciences,
- People Development,
- Legal Services,
- Financial Services,
- Public Sector
– 18 Nov, 2020
The Perils Of Presenteeism
I just returned to my laptop on my dining table from a short trip to the kitchen where I had made myself a coffee. With my freshly brewed coffee I had also stepped outside for a moment to savour the sun and text my husband who had to go into the office today for the first time since March. All in all it took me about 7 minutes, but that was enough for my computer to decide it needed to lock itself. I growled at it, not because typing in the 4-digit pin was a hassle, but because that meant my MS Teams status would have gone yellow to “away”.
Until today I did not realise why I growled and suddenly felt slightly anxious and guilty, but after a great conversation this morning with my colleague it became clear: She mentioned a phenomenon she called the ‘presenteeism’. The feeling that you need to join all online meetings just to be “seen”, the need to make sure people know that you are busy working. Often we turn the camera and microphone off, because we are not really sure how to contribute or because we want to get something else done and seem to fade into the background, but that’s ok, as long as people know we are there.
Would we do this in a face to face meeting? Probably not. If we had urgent things to get done, we would politely decline and stay at our desk. If we showed up, we would at least try to add value where possible, even if the meeting wasn’t the most relevant to us.
The conversation with my colleague and subsequently my team, helped me see how the little status indicator on Teams had become a source of anxiety for me and others. I reflected on this and found so many examples where this had happened: Monday I was conceptualising an approach to a methodology and because I am a visual person, I used a huge piece of paper on my kitchen table (in lack of a whiteboard) to draw things out. My laptop was close by and whenever the screen started dimming in preparation for shutting down, I hastily moved the mouse to prevent it from locking itself and making me look “away” again. My concentration was impacted, I felt stressed and it took much longer to get a grip on the task at hand.
Was there a reason?
A need for me to do that? Luckily not. I work for a great company and with wonderful people. Nobody has ever shown any signs of judgement about my Teams status at all, but it felt wrong regardless. It all stems from the sudden shift to remote working, and the stigma that goes along with that, I was afraid people could think I was not working, not pulling my weight, just relaxing – taking a break made me feel guilty. Back when we were working in an office, I would not have thought twice about it! I would have gotten my coffee, chatted to a few colleagues in the kitchen, stepped outside onto the roof top terrace (for the sun) and texted my husband. I might have even stayed on the terrace for a while longer, the whole thing would have easily taken 15 minutes and I would not have cared. Nobody would have. And nobody does now – apart from myself.
And here, ultimately, is the rub: this sort of surface productivity, the empty theatre of performed “busyness”, is not just unproductive, it’s hard work, mentally and physically! Anxiously multi-tasking, sitting through endless meetings as a nagging list of things we need to finish makes it impossible to really tune in to anything anyone is saying – it’s a terrible source of stress, erodes creativity, inhibits focus and puts us at risk of burnout. It is both a product and source of anxiety, damaging on a personal level but more importantly, potentially ruinous to organisations at scale.
So how do we confront it?
Simply acknowledging how we feel about these things can help, it helped me. But, on an organisational level, we as leaders and managers need to start having more open conversations about this subject with our colleagues and teams. Combatting presenteeism, requires clear guidance and a standard setting from leadership. Like all exercises in de-escalation, progress starts with a psychologically safe environment where participants are free to express their thoughts that might make them feel or appear vulnerable, without fear of consequence.
“Powerful communications come from the heart of your values and reflect as well as foster your authentic company culture”
Dani takes pride in the difference she makes for her clients and within Chaucer by putting people at the heart of everything she does. She has over 10 years of experience across several industries throughout Europe which enables her to apply a refreshingly creative yet efficient approach to complex client challenges in particular around communications, engagement and people development.