As we all come to terms with the implications of a third national lockdown, cast your mind back to Spring last year when the novelty of working from home was still at its peak. One of the biggest benefits highlighted at the time was that remote working would herald the end of presenteeism, the practice of being present in the office for more hours than is required, as a means of impressing the boss or as a manifestation of job insecurity.

In the words of PwC’s Chairman Kevin Ellis last summer, the age of presenteeism is over, and it would not have come a day too soon – according to a 2019 survey from insurance company Vitality, presenteeism’s impact on productivity is 12 times greater than its much less accepted twin, absenteeism, and 35 productive days are lost per worker each year due to it. What’s more, research in 2018 from The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found not only that 83% of its respondents had observed presenteeism where they work but that it was at a record high in UK organisations.

Whether or not you align with Woody Allen’s view that 80% of success is showing up, we may have been over-eager to believe that the days of being judged by whether we are present at our desks or not, rather than by the quality of our work, are behind us. Since the first lockdown began, we have seen the emergence of virtual presenteeism. Insurer Canada Life found that more than one in three employees has continued to work while feeling unwell during lockdown, with workers wanting to look reliable and fearing redundancy amongst rising unemployment. Home workers are reported to be putting in an extra 49 minutes a day at work and no longer have the respite of going out for lunch with others or even popping outside for a coffee. During Zoom calls turning off your video is met with scepticism, despite the invasiveness of having so many aspects of our lives on show as the boundaries between personal and professional worlds blur.

Even darker concerns lie around privacy and the surveillance of staff, whether by monitoring their screen time or keystrokes. In his recent article Working from home: a living hell, Professor James Woudhuysen made the point that ‘the chance of comprehensively tracking your every click and tea-break is much great with Work From Home than it is in the conventional workplace.’

So, how do we bring virtual presenteeism under control and prevent it becoming a new monster for home workers? It starts with creating a culture of trust in which management teams respect the importance of downtime for people’s wellbeing (even in high pressure contexts) and in which employees are reassured that quality of work is more important than quantity. Technology has a role to play as well, for example supportive software such as f.lux, which adjusts your computer’s display according to location and time of day, jogging employees out of an ‘always on’ state of mind.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and presentee-free 2021.

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