You probably won’t need reminding that early in the New Year we’ll be entering the third (and hopefully last) year of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has directly led to numerous, fundamental changes in the way we live our lives, and to the ways many organisations operate, particularly in how they manage their people.

As the pandemic marches into winter, armed with its new Omicron variant of concern, businesses continue to face a number of colleague-related challenges, from keeping people safe in the workplace, to mitigating travel restrictions, to managing with temporarily reduced headcount as those with positive PCR tests isolate.

Being there

At this time of year, alongside Covid, people are also at increased risk of catching and transmitting a host of other viruses, like colds, influenza and norovirus. Though especially seasonal, these ailments have traditionally presented employers with another year-round challenge, that of ‘presenteeism’: the drive to make our way into work while feeling ‘under the weather’. Most of us at some time or other have done this, soldiering on for a less than productive day.

This is clearly counterproductive, and can lead to potentially more sickness absence in the long term. Furthermore, an unwell colleague is far from giving their best, meaning mistakes or errors in judgement are more likely, while also putting their workmates’ health and subsequent productivity at risk.

The factors underpinning presenteeism are varied, but include people’s fear around the security of their job, and any culture of long working hours in the business. Whatever underpins it, it’s seemingly a hard habit to break. A 2021 CIPD survey1 found that despite the UK being mid-pandemic the “overwhelming majority of respondents (84%) have observed ‘presenteeism’, both in the workplace (75%) and while working at home (77%), over the past 12 months.” It also reported that while more organisations are beginning to address the issue, some 43% of businesses experiencing presenteeism are taking no action to remedy it.

This cultural challenge can be tackled in a number of ways. Leaders themselves can enable healthier workplace practices through leading by example, while also being aware of, and defusing, any real or imagined pressures on colleagues to show ‘dedication’ by turning in while unwell. Furthermore, organisational policy also plays a part, with the scope for businesses to review sick leave policy, and include a more flexible and nuanced approach to its on-the-ground implementation.

A hybrid model

But in the light of the pandemic-fuelled shift towards a hybrid model – where many workers are now spending at least some, if not all, of their working week in the ‘home office’ – is presenteeism still as much of an issue? Is the definition of the term even useful anymore, or should it evolve with the changed workplace?

The benefits of hybrid working to both employees and employers are well covered, but include: supporting people’s work-life balance; offering greater scope to concentrate; saving on transport costs and stress; and enhancing both mental wellbeing and productivity.

Hybrid working is, unsurprisingly, an increasingly desirable solution. During the first year of the pandemic, we spoke to many clients and contacts about their experience of hybrid working, and a couple of numbers emerged time and again: there was a 60/40 split in people’s hybrid working preference (with three days per week from home); and some 90% of employees wanted to continue hybrid working in the post-pandemic world. This ties in with a new report that found 83% of workers considered hybrid as the optimal way to work2.

New presenteeism

So, is presenteeism a problem for remote workers? Absolutely. There are plenty of pressures on remote workers to still be ‘present’. These include: being logged on at all hours; always being available for calls or replying to emails; there being little real distinction between work-mode and life-mode when you have no physical distance from the workplace; and there often being tangible inequities between the working experiences of in-office and remote workers.

There’s also the potential risk of another form of presenteeism in a post-pandemic world, where relatively recent hybrid workers will feel pressure to shift more/all of their time back into the workplace.

Both aspects of this new presenteeism bring their own potential risks. For colleagues, as with traditional presenteeism, the perception of being needed in the office could be stressful. As could feeling pressure to be ‘always on’. Both of these have the potential to de-motivate, and impact mental wellbeing and job happiness.

For employers, there’s the risk to trust for starters, something that is hard won and easily lost. Unhappy colleagues, ‘encouraged’ back to the workplace, are also likely to be less productive as a result, as are those who are overworked and frazzled. And, as we discussed in our article on EVP last month, with the market having a huge number of vacancies, and people being increasingly discerning in what they expect from work, presenteeism could easily result in talent seeking more flexible work elsewhere.

Naturally, leaders and managers can again play a major role. They should:

  • Be flexible around meetings that include remote colleagues – Google describe this as having a “flexibility first” culture.3
  • Make smart use of people’s calendars to ensure meeting times align for everyone.4
  • Ensure remote and in-office working experiences (especially meetings) are equitable.5
  • Avoid sending emails outside of work hours (or, at least, don’t expect replies until the next working day).
  • Avoid ‘proximity bias’ by ensuring remote workers are treated fairly.6
  • Ensure the fun stuff (celebrations, praise, recognition etc.) doesn’t only happen in the office.
  • Encourage screen breaks – not all calls need to be video calls.
  • Provide certainty around the post-pandemic continuity of hybrid working practices.
  • Remove friction points, such as IT issues, that reduce remote workers’ effectiveness in team meetings etc.

Reinventing the workplace

Of course, optimal hybrid working is predicated on having spaces both at home and in the workplace that facilitate the key principles of work, namely: concentration, conversation, collaboration, exploration and reflection. For some of these principles, there are clear advantages to working (safely) alongside colleagues in the workplace. It’s just about finding the right balance for individuals and the business.

John Drummond explores this need for balance in the recent Human Organisation report, writing: “Remote working is valuable for the person and the organisation… connecting face-to-face, working together, making stuff happen, learning from each other. Without this human contact we began to be seriously concerned about the impacts on mental health. Ultimately, people are inherently social.”

In his introduction to the report, John also notes that hybrid working, and the wider societal changes brought by the pandemic, present “an opportunity not just to reinvent the workplace, but to reimagine the world of work. The tectonic plates of our working lives are shifting.”

As the pandemic (hopefully) recedes in the year ahead, and many aspects of daily life return to an evolved, but recognisable, form, let’s hope that the shift towards healthier work practices and flexible/hybrid working is with us for good.

If you’d like to discuss how to make your organisation healthier and more human, please contact