Digital Presenteeism: The Pressure to be seen in the Virtual Office

21 February 2023

The ability to work remotely, accelerated by the adoption of digital technologies during the pandemic, is often seen as a shift towards increasing flexibility and autonomy for workers.

However, our research suggests that office workers who once took care to be seen at their desks are now adopting new forms of ‘digital’ presenteeism to signal their constant availability.

We surveyed 70 relatively autonomous professional workers in two organisations during the lockdown-mandated mass move to working-from-home in 2020-1. One organisation already worked entirely digitally and the other quickly digitised existing processes.

We found evidence that remote workers may replace working late in the office with working on personal devices in the evening. Showcasing their presence also involved swiftly replying to messages and even tapping the keyboard to maintain a green circle of availability on Microsoft Teams during breaks.

Given that traditional forms of presenteeism have long been associated with detriments to workers’ health and well-being, we were concerned to understand how the pressure to be seen in the virtual office is giving rise to new forms of unproductive and unhealthy digital presenteeism. We outline three trends from our research findings below.

1 Remote workers worked longer hours

Aided by the flexibility afforded through digital technology, 84% of research participants reporting working above their contracted working hours to complete tasks and remain connected to work and colleagues. Participants also frequently replaced commute time with work.

Working time estimates were similar among those who both used and did not use additional technology to access work (such as mobile phones, social media or messaging services). However, digital workers did not include work undertaken on personal devices during leisure time in their working time estimates. This appeared to obscure their awareness of the labour they were donating, and the demands placed upon them. In reality, digital workers were working longer hours, since the move to homeworking, but seldom showing conscious awareness of this. Access to digitised work at home encourages the extensification of work as spatial or temporal barriers to work are eroded and the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred.

2 Being busy though not necessarily more productive

Increased working hours enabled by homeworking and technology meant that most survey participants (58%) did report higher levels of perceived productivity, while 19% maintained the same levels of productivity compared to working from the office. Productivity was self-defined by measuring performance against targets, and those who reported increased productivity did so because they (i) worked longer hours, (ii) encountered fewer distractions, (iii) had reduced commute times, and (iv) had more autonomy to complete tasks according to their preferences.

However, statistical analysis examining the specific influence of digital technology use on productivity only demonstrated a slight and statistically non-significant increase in perceived productivity among those who use additional technology. This slightly positive perception of those who utilise more avenues of communication could mean that technology allows these participants to undertake their work more effectively and efficiently.

Equally, while the use of digital technology has the potential to reduce workload and increase free time, it often generates more activity. Indeed, participants frequently equated productivity to busyness, which possibly explains why those who used more digital technologies felt more productive (although this does not necessarily align with more objective measures of productivity monitored within the organisation).

The two participating organisations also measure employee productivity using digital technology. One used significantly more digital surveillance tools and performance metrics although, interestingly, participants from this organisation did not perceive greater levels of productivity. There were no differences between the organisations in terms of participants’ perceived levels of productivity in relation to differing levels of digital surveillance. The potential for digital surveillance was equitable between the two organisations, however, and this potential, rather than any formal monitoring, contributed to the extensification of work.

Despite increased perceptions of productivity resulting from longer working hours, the need to remain available through digital technology also prompted increased unproductive time, signalling a rise in digital presenteeism.

3 Signalling digital presence

While participants were no longer required to be physically present at work, this was often replaced by pressure to be digitally present. Most participants cited this pressure as remaining at the same level or worsening since homeworking was mandated.

One strategy adopted to maintain a digital presence was to reply to messages immediately. This was exacerbated by the use of Microsoft Teams whereby colleagues could see others’ presence and availability.

Participants reported that they stayed close to their laptops, while on breaks, to periodically touch the keyboard and avoid being seen as away from their desks, which would signify unproductiveness.

Given workers’ elongated working hours and high levels of perceived productivity, these indications of availability served to maintain visibility. However, additional work wasn’t actually being completed. Indeed, indicating their presence on digital platforms acted as a distraction from work for many workers as they self-monitored how much they have been ‘seen’ at work each day (and rectified this after periods of inactivity).

While managers did not necessarily use online availability as a marker for performance or productivity, workers associated presenteeism with productivity. This was compounded by the fact that digital indications of presence were visible to all. The potential for surveillance, together with the ambiguity of whether this was monitored, spurred workers to work for longer to maintain presence and availability. The levels of connection afforded through digital technology also heightened visibility and fuelled digital presenteeism.

As traditional workplaces transition to homeworking, organisations need to be mindful of the ways digital tools influence workplace culture. Productivity cannot be measured solely through working time, visibility or availability. Workers must be enabled to achieve a balance while working in personal spaces, and reminded that being ‘always on’ is not equated with being an effective worker. Organisations should acknowledge that the pressure to be seen in the virtual office can be a distraction, rather than the foundation of a productive day’s work.

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