Digital presenteeism is creating a future of work that nobody wants

Old office habits are being carried over into remote working, killing productivity and leaving workers feeling frazzled.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor
Eyes of a man  peering over the top of a laptop screen working late into the night with a dark empty office behind him
Image: Getty Images

The adoption of remote working has brought greater flexibility to knowledge workers – but old habits from the office could lead to a future of work that few of us want.

According to a report by software companies Qatalog and GitLab, inequalities in workplace hierarchies and an abundance of remote-working tools are creating a "pervasive culture of digital presenteeism" that is damaging productivity and leading staff to work longer hours.

A survey of 2,000 knowledge workers found that 54% feel pressured to appear online and visible while working remotely. With work no longer taking place entirely in the office, employees are taking additional steps to ensure their work gets recognized, the survey found, which often means arbitrarily responding to emails and messages, attending additional meetings and adding comments and responses to shared work documents.

Knowledge workers are adding an extra 67 minutes to their work day by doing so, researchers found – equivalent to an additional 5.5 hours a week. This, combined with the non-stop barrage of app notifications, is killing productivity and leaving workers unhappy, stressed, and unable to switch off from work.

SEE: Buzz, buzz, burnout: Constant notifications are ruining your productivity. Here's what to do about it

According to Qatalog and GitLab's study, Killing Time at Work '22, many of the woes of the new remote workplaces boil down to the fact that work is still carried out during coordinated hours – for example, between the hours of 9-5 shifts.

Qatalog and GitLab argue that this method is outdated and no longer reflects the way work gets done. For starters, technology enables knowledge workers to do their jobs at any time of day, making coordinated hours largely redundant.

A better solution, they suggest, is an asynchronous working model, whereby employees have flexibility not just over where they work, but when they work.

This flexibility boosts the quality of output, the report authors said: 81% of respondents felt they were more productive and created higher quality work when they had autonomy over their work schedules. "Employers can't expect creativity on demand. Putting a whiteboard in a room and spending an hour 'brainstorming' does not guarantee creative output," read the report.

Qatalog and GitLab also identified inequalities in what they dubbed "async privilege", in that those in senior leadership positions were far more likely to reap the benefits of flexible working than those lower down the chain.

Only a third (33%) of knowledge workers said they work asynchronously, compared to three-quarters (74%) in the c-suite, 48% at VP or director level, and 32% of managers. 

"Even though most leaders and managers feel that presenteeism pressure, they can still work async because they know they're not going to be asked what they've been doing by those junior to them," Tariq Rauf, founder and CEO at Qatalog, tells ZDNet.

"Junior team members often assume they need to respond to requests and tasks immediately or get given instructions at the last minute, which is why they might feel the need to be available 24/7. Leaders must become more thoughtful and provide advance warning of priorities, rather than just pinging their team throughout the day."    

Conversely, employees feel that their bosses would prefer to keep them in old ways of working: 63% of respondents said management and senior leadership "prefer a traditional culture with employees in the office". That said, more than half (54%) also said their colleagues are stuck in old habits that create a barrier to change.

SEE: Ditching the office for good: How to build a successful remote workplace

While technology has enabled more employees to work remotely – bringing considerable benefits in doing so – it has also facilitated digital presenteeism, Qatalog and GitLab concluded.

One solution is to make technology less invasive and "more considerate of the user and completely redesigned for the new way of work, rather than supporting old habits in new environments" – although this may be easier said than done. According to Raud, current solutions require a "radical redesign that is more considerate of the user and prioritizes their objectives, rather than simply capturing our attention."

Culture shift is also necessary for async work to become normalized, says Rauf. 

This comes from the top, and starts with trust: "When leaders send a message to their team, make clear whether or not it needs an immediate response or better yet, schedule updates to go out when people are most likely online. If I message a team member at an odd hour, I prefix a 'for tomorrow' or 'no rush', so they know it's not an urgent issue."

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