What is digital presenteeism and how do you avoid it on a remote team?

Ensure your remote employees maintain a healthy balance.

Man sitting at desk looking stressed

“If you're on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off.” If those seventeen words sound familiar, it’s because they rocked the internet in December 2021. 

Indignation flooded the interwebs as Vishal Garg, CEO of Better.com, a digital mortgage lending service, laid off 900 staff en masse right before Christmas. Over a Zoom call. He said he decided based on “...efficiency, performance, and productivity” [of said employees].

You see, it’s not every day that companies pull a Better on their employees. But according to HR Consultancy firm Intoo, nearly half of American employees experience layoff anxiety, despite record low unemployment rates

And that’s understandable because so much is tied to our jobs—our income, wellbeing, and sometimes even our sense of identity. Losing your job is more than a minor inconvenience, and people will go to great lengths to avoid it.

That’s where the problem of presenteeism begins. In this piece, we’ll unpack what presenteeism is, how it’s rearing its ugly head in remote work culture, and what to do to avoid or fix it.

But first, let’s explore what presenteeism is.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism first described the problem of employees showing up at work even when they didn’t need to. This included but wasn’t limited to:

  • Working when unwell
  • Working longer than necessary
  • Responding to messages and calls outside of work hours

But, the meaning of presenteeism has since evolved to describe when workers show up to work physically but aren’t engaged psychologically and ultimately aren’t productive. 

This is not simply a matter of workers doing the bare minimum to get by. According to Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report, a whopping 85% of the global workforce are not fully engaged at their jobs.

Graphic that says 85% of the global workforce are not fully engaged at their jobs.

But this only applies to physical, on-site work. Or does it? Now that so many people log onto work from home rather than going to an office every day, how does presenteeism manifest digitally? 

What is digital presenteeism?

You might think that the pressure to present oneself reduces in the world of remote work. But it can actually have the opposite effect.  

Because remote workers are out of sight from their boss and colleagues, they tend to feel the need to prove their presence. When not addressed, this can result in an ‘always-on’ culture where employees feel obliged to stay online or respond to messages 24/7 simply to avoid going unnoticed.

To add to this challenge, many people are new to remote work and haven't yet figured out how to strike a healthy work-life balance while at home.

Research by group risk provider Canada Life found that nearly half (46%) of UK WFH employees feel more pressure to be present. And another 16% are working despite being sick because of redundancy fears. 20% of employees did so because colleagues/senior staff would make them feel guilty for taking time off. 

Graphic that says 24% of UK workers said they feel the need to prove they were working every day

What is fueling digital presenteeism?

The overarching cause of digital presenteeism is that historically in the workplace, visibility was just as important, if not more important, than productivity. A “hardworking” employee was defined as someone who spent the most hours at their desk, rather than being defined by their output. 

The lingering effects of this in the remote working world mean that sometimes,  people try to prove their worth simply by being seen. According to a LinkedIn survey, remote workers have worked an extra 28 hours per month since lockdown began.

This notion aggravates some of the other factors that contribute to presenteeism, such as:

  • Job insecurity
  • Unhealthy work-life balance
  • Lack of trust and transparency between employers and employees. This can lead to micro-management and a ‘notice-me’ approach instead of a productivity-oriented one. 

Also, it’s feasible to conclude the stigma around mental health at work fuels digital presenteeism. We often laud the ‘commitment’ that spurs employees to be present at work even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult.

Graphic that highlights 3 things fueling digital presenteeism

Why is digital presenteeism a problem?

The problem of digital presenteeism starts with management and leadership. And the foundations on which we build our workplace cultures.

The Harvard Business Review calls it “being at work, but out of it.” And that’s a disconnect that costs the US economy more than 150 billion US dollars per year, according to an American Productivity Audit. In Japan, that figure comes to around $3,055 per employee per year.

But the financial consequences of digital presenteeism are only the tip of the iceberg. As employees strive to be noticed by:

  • Working longer hours
  • Keeping their Slack status as “available” beyond business hours
  • Responding to emails or messages in the dead of the night

Therein lies the greater problem of digital presenteeism: Its impact on employees' physical and mental health—burnout, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, and other health implications. 

How to ensure that remote employees maintain a healthy work-life balance

Here are some strategies that team leaders can adopt to manage digital presenteeism:

Graphic that says how to ensure remote employees maintain a healthy work-life balancey

Have clear expectations around communication

By implementing a communication structure, team members know when they’re expected to be available and when they shouldn't be. The following can go a long way in improving your team’s communication workflow:

  • Communicate your working hours to your team
  • Establish the best way of contacting you during working hours 
  • Add a line to your email footer reminding team members to only respond to your emails during working hours.

It's also crucial to set expectations for each role; if employees don't understand the team's goals and how to contribute, their productivity suffers.

For employers, the focus should be on output when evaluating productivity rather than hours clocked. And this should be communicated to employees. If employees are getting their work done effectively, there’s no need for a time log or checking whether or not they’re “active” on Slack throughout the day. 

Another way to improve communication on remote teams is to consider embracing asynchronous communication, which removes the pressure for employees to respond to messages in real-time.

Create policies tailored to your team

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for tackling the issue of presenteeism in workplaces.

Blanket policies—such as a ban on staying connected after work hours—may not work for everyone. Some employees work best after regular business hours. And it will take open, honest discussions to figure out what works best for each team member. 

Use your findings to create policies that are considerate of your team. When people feel heard, they feel valued. And it motivates them to do meaningful, productive work.

Check on employees

Managers should schedule regular check-ins with each employee. 

Remote work is new to many, and it’s easy for some employees to slip into a funk while trying to figure it out. Check-ins not only demonstrate the company values its staff, but they’ll also help managers stay updated with concerns and challenges team members might be facing. That way, they’re more likely to be proactive and support struggling team members, effectively nipping any disconnect in the bud.

For example, if employees tend to work longer into the evenings, check if it’s because they feel pressured to or because it suits them. In the case of the former, it’s important to remind employees to step back from work and take time off. 

Foster a positive work culture

According to a 2019 Glassdoor survey, 56% of workers consider a positive workplace culture more important than pay. On top of this, more than three-quarters of workers say they consider a company's culture before applying for a job. A great work culture fosters trust and transparency. 

If you haven’t established this type of work environment, employees may not feel comfortable sharing their concerns or struggles.

Lead by example

When senior executives communicate and demonstrate that a healthy work-life balance is essential, the rest of the team finds it easier to follow suit.

Leaders can set an example by updating their Slack status or calendar to indicate they’re taking a mid-day walk, picking up their kids, or working out. They can also make sure to set out of office responders and not check-in or show up as “available” on Slack while they’re on vacation. 

Even kicking off meetings by talking about their family life, weekend plans, and favorite TV shows shows employees the importance of their life outside of work. 

Building a healthy, productive workplace culture

A lot is changing in terms of how the world works. And it’s important for us as leaders to recognize that in a remote environment, output is more important than time spent online. 

As long as employees are getting their work done, we need to rethink how we approach the traditional work day and clearly communicate that to employees. This will help us avoid the impact of digital presenteeism and ultimately build healthier work cultures and happier employees. 

It won't happen overnight, but each deliberate, well-informed decision you make will bring you and your team closer to being the most productive, happy, and healthy team you can be.

What do employees today really want? Download your copy of the 2022 Employee Expectations Report to find out!

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop and take care of a thriving global workforce. It lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.

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