We aren’t working at home, we are living at work. Virtual presenteeism amongst remote working employees is on the rise driven by a paranoia to be seen to be always ‘at work’ and fuelled by the rise of employee surveillance technology. It’s stressful, and internal communicators have responded with a barrage of mental health and wellbeing communication, but should we have been focusing on creating remote-first organisational cultures instead?
‘We aren’t working at home, we are living at work.’ Something I heard this week and possibly the quote of the year.
As 2020 starts to draw to a close, will this become the definition of the experience of work for millions of employees in this annus horribilis.
The ability to work at home and enjoy more flexibility in how and where we grafted, to achieve a better work -life balance, has been an aspirational nirvana for many employees for decades. A virtual workplace paradise made possible by the relentless march of digital technology.
However, after the better part of a year of enforced remote working because of the pandemic, I suspect that for many employees, that paradise may now have become a living hell.
I’ve been seeing more and more references to what is becoming known as e-presenteeism or virtual presenteeism. This happens when employees feel compelled to be ‘always on’ or available for work at home, because technology makes this frictionless and has dismantled the physical and psychological walls between work and the rest of our lives.
Even before the pandemic, presenteeism was a workplace problem. How many colleagues have you known who thought that the key to greater rewards, credibility or a promotion was to always ‘be seen to be at work’ in the eyeline of the boss? Or, did you ever feel compelled yourself to arrive at your workplace at bit earlier, skip lunch, or leave later because that was the unspoken right thing to do?
Now, in the virtual workplace, being physically visible and working is much more difficult to achieve and it is driving a new set of employee behaviours that define virtual presenteeism.
Being always ‘green’ on digital collaboration platforms, strategically timing the sending of emails throughout the working day – and then in the evenings and early mornings. Engaging in instant messaging chats at all hours of the day and night. Never switching off from work properly.
It’s so easy to do – just check your messages over and over again to see what’s happening and respond immediately to be a compliant and productive employee. Highly visible, but also highly stressful.
A culture of surveillance
For many employees being digitally omnipresent at all times, and at all costs, has become their singular imperative because they feel that their job may depend on it. In addition the rising use of employee surveillance software during the pandemic is likely fuelling this paranoia to be seen to be always living at work.
Did you implement Microsoft Teams in your organisation this year? Yes? Well you just inadvertently helped to create the right environment for virtual presenteeism to potentially thrive, following the revelations this week that Office 365 contains an employee productivity score feature, that can track individual employees’ online activity.
No employee wants to be singled out for redundancy and join the growing legions of jobseekers in a global pandemic, because they were perceived to be a slacker, by either their boss or by ‘the machine’. But the technology that was our saviour at the beginning of the pandemic, enabling millions to rapidly transition to remote and home working, also has the potential to create toxic workplace surveillance cultures which drive virtual presenteeism.
A wellbeing cul-de-sac
When internal communicators look back at the things we focused on communicating about in 2020, I suspect that physical and mental health and wellbeing will be near the top of the list. A supreme effort to inform employees how to look after themselves and not overdo it by always being ‘at work-at home’, to avoid stress and burnout in the teeth of the pandemic.
Heaven knows, there has been enough wellbeing discussion, content and advice swilling around the internal communication profession in 2020 to distract everyone from thinking about anything else. No doubt, because of this, it probably felt like the right thing to do at the time. However, I think we have all been expending huge amounts of time focusing on the wrong thing and we’ve ended up in a wellbeing cul-de-sac going nowhere.
What we should have been prioritising instead was organisational culture, because most organisations don’t currently have a culture which supports the mass remote working we have been forced to adopt in 2020, and possibly forever in some form or another.
Towards a remote-first culture in 2021
A robust remote-first culture is what we should have been seeking to begin to create. Not putting wellbeing sticking plasters on employees en-masse to try and combat the dysfunctional cultures we already have which drive workplace presenteeism and create all the stress in the first place. We have been trying to treat the symptoms, not the root cause of the disease, with our wellbeing first aid kits.
In August I asked other internal communicators in my blog ‘Paradise Lost’ what the impact of the pandemic had been on the culture of their organisations. The majority of people who responded said that the pandemic had changed their organisational culture forever or would influence it in some way.
If that’s the case for the majority of us, then what have we all been doing to support that transition and make sure that our organisational cultures are heading towards the right place?
What should we have been doing to stop the encroachment of virtual presenteeism into the working lives of our homeworking colleagues, because our current organisational cultures support its proliferation, aided and abetted by digital technology?
As internal communicators start to look ahead to our priorities for 2021, perhaps helping to transform organisational workplace cultures to properly support a new world of remote working should be nearer the top of our to-do lists.