You could say I’m from the old school, writes Chris Buchanan, Client Solutions Director, Dell Technologies South Africa. When I first started working in an office, employees had to be seen. A visible employee was a productive employee and slackers weren’t at their desks.

This informed my management style when I was put in charge of other people and it made sense. But things often make sense when you don’t know better.

Fast forward to a few years ago and my views have changed. Laptops and Blackberries let employees take their work with them and even rudimentary internet such as a GSM or 3G connection was not a barrier working where you wanted to. Today this approach to work is seen as the norm and the way to create a vibrant, attractive workplace for talented employees.

Such a workplace is established with the help of modern devices and services. But there is an emerging problem that could damage those efforts. Employees are trying to be seen more than ever before, a trend called Presenteeism.

Presenteeism is the opposite of absenteeism, which sounds great but it isn’t. Presenteeism is when someone shows up at the office with a cold when they should be at home in bed. It’s behind the heroic work hours and deadlines that so many teams deal with and it reinforces the problem with my above-mentioned old school approach: visibility and productivity are not the same and the former can be counterproductive to the latter.

Mavis sniffling at her desk is not doing her best work and likely distracting others as well, maybe even infecting them. Yet can we blame her? She’s feeling the pressure of a demanding, always-on workplace and wants to be a good employee.

Presenteeism is on the rise. A new survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK found that 83% of respondents observed presenteeism and 25% said the problem is getting worse.

I frequently advocate for a modern workplace, where the four personas – desk-centric, corridor warriors, on-the-go pros and remote workers – are each catered for with the right devices, services and management support. But we have to be careful not to drive these purely as a productivity exercise. Productivity is important, but people are fragile. Creating a superhuman expectation leads to problems, often exacerbated by our connected cultures. Whatsapp messages can reach us at any hour, demanding emails can find us on holiday, last-minute requirements haunt us while sitting in bed.

These are not good attributes. They create burnout and erode morale. A modern workplace needs modern attitudes around respecting employees and not abusing flexible technologies.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Do your employees hit ‘reply all’ merely to show accountability? Do you have policies to indicate when they can trim that recipient list?
  • Instant messaging like Whatsapp is great, but has many limitations. Do your managers think they can send messages at any time? Is the content appropriate?
  • Do you allow your people to show they can do their jobs or does your culture encourage helicopter management?
  • Have you looked at your processes, improving cumbersome ones? Are you listening to your employees suggestions to make them more efficient?
  • Are your employees made aware of mindfulness around tasks? Or do they approach tasks as “tick box” exercises?

I have adjusted my perspective from a few years ago, nowadays a week or two may pass without me seeing my direct reports. However, the real challenge has been finding a way to address the points mentioned above. Modern devices and services have made it easy for employees to work everywhere, but the unintended consequence is that they work all the time as well – and eventually regard that as the status quo. This can undermine attempts to improve their capabilities and choices.

Establishing good work/life balance opportunities is very important, particularly if you wish to attract and retain the best talent. Technology and connectivity have helped make this a reality: employees able to hit their deadline and still pick the kids up from school. It’s a far cry and major improvement over the dreaded ‘be seen to be promoted’ days.

But without looking at your culture, those technologies become traps. People feel the pressure to keep performing, even at the cost of their health. That ultimately is a cost to your business.

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