Deciding to let employees work either remotely or in the office requires more than just the provision of remote technology. Instead, it will require a change in how employee performance is measured – a shift from ‘being seen’ to actually producing results.
Presenteeism, the art of being at your desk long enough and often enough to impress your boss, is habitual behaviour in enough organisations for it to be a concern. In these cases, being present is seen to be a good thing by managers and is usually taken as a proxy for productivity. This is especially true among knowledge workers, who may produce little of tangible value, like a widget or a happy customer. In which case, being in the office staring at reports or a computer screen, however vacantly, can look like work. As can corridor and canteen gossiping with colleagues. Strangely, having to work late in the office is taken be as a sign of performance and commitment, rather than an indication that someone may be struggling or that they spend too much time chatting with their chums during normal office hours.
Presenteeism is one of the reasons that working from home has been frowned upon, because it was perceived that those working from home were slackers, taking the opportunity to lounge about and drag out tasks while out of sight of their managers. And, for remote employees, no matter their actual qualities, out of sight could mean out of mind when it came to appraisals and promotion. But no longer, it seems?
Remote work, once considered a novelty, has become a necessity for many businesses in the Covid-19 world. This has challenged the common assumption that remote work environments hinder employee productivity. Executives across industries have been pleasantly surprised to see productivity remaining consistent or even increasing as employees shifted to working from home, despite many of them also doing duty as home-school teachers.
Consequently, post-pandemic, many companies plan to allow employees to work from home or the office. But this hybrid model does not solve the problem of presenteeism, in fact it is likely to aggravate it. The danger is that office work will remain privileged over home/remote work, unless companies make the shift from rewarding attendance (equating ‘being seen’ in an office with being productive), to rewarding output (equating results with productivity).
The key, I think, is to recognise that hybrid working creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage. Despite recent successes with remote work, organisations are reopening offices to encourage social bonding, increase business collaboration, and overcome inefficiencies in communication systems and processes. The assumption underlying these re-openings is that some critical things can’t be done as effectively outside of the office. But while much of that may be true, the most powerful force attracting people back to the office is culture. Office work is the ‘way we have been doing things around here’ for decades; a few months are not going to change that. And presenteeism is a product of office culture.
While the office-based model has historically proven to be successful for many companies, it will provide significant challenges for companies also committed to supporting a newly remote workforce. If an office is the default, and processes and systems don’t adapt to the new remote workforce, team members working from home may well feel excluded and it will be harder for them to be ‘seen’ to perform at the same level as their in-office peers.
To ensure that remote employees are not penalised for working outside the office, they will need to be proactively integrated into the fabric of the organisation, making the cultural and behavioural transition from rewarding attendance to rewarding results. Furthermore, if remote workers find that they are not getting promoted at an equal rate to their office based colleagues, because they are less visible, the most productive and capable will leave for companies that will invest in them.
Successfully integrating an office-based and remote workforce will, on that basis, require an intentional re-design of how organisations function. Unquestioningly sticking to systems and processes that make an office-based model successful may well doom a hybrid model to failure. Proactively setting up your organisation for office-remote working needs to go beyond where they sit and how often their manager physically sees them. Instead, it requires remote workers to be efficient at managing themselves (able to self-organize and work virtually, in real-time and asynchronously) and managers who appreciate that results are the best measure of talent, not just being seen.
So what specifically can organisations do?
1. Collect and analyse the data
Data, as in any other area of diversity, is the key to revealing gaps. Advances in analytics are already driving organisations to become more evidence-based in their HR practices, so why not look at the effects of remote working. Perhaps by level to assess whether it provides the same career benefits for entry-level, mid-career, and executive level employees.
2. Learn from others
I work with a National Consumer Council for whom a mix of office and remote workers is embedded in all that they do. Find other examples and learn from them how to manage a hybrid workforce.
3. Focus on output
Upgrade your performance evaluation processes and metrics to ensure a focus on outputs, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than how often they are seen in the office.
4. Avoid the development of two tiers of employees
Don’t turn the office into the first class lounge or VIP club. Temper the individual drive for status and office/face time through ensuring an equal amount of “hybrid” access for everyone.
5. Educate managers about the new rules
All of which will require a change in how managers behave: how they judge productivity, how they value real time and virtual presence in the office, and how they overcome any conscious or unconscious bias toward office verses remote workers. They need to understand that it is not business as usual, it is not a return to normal.
In the worst case, organisations that do not make systemic changes around hybrid, remote/office, risk losing some of their best employees and then blaming the resulting lack of talent and productivity on remote working rather than the actual cause: that managing two distinct employee experiences is difficult. These companies may then write off remote work as a novel experiment, blame it for operational difficulties, and pull their remaining remote workers back into the office. At least until the next time remote working is forced upon us all.