IT and the Curse of Presenteeism

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One of my favourites columns in the Economist is Bartleby.

Bartleby is a witty and thought provoking column on management and work, covering topics like “why companies are so bad at hiring” to ‘struggling with style” or what to not wear at work, to JOMO, or the joy of missing out, which draws parallels between Networking and Not Working…..

Last week’s subject was about “fighting the curse of presenteeism”.

The article refers to some credible studies suggesting that after 50 hours a week, employee productivity falls sharply.

As I was reading the article on my commute to work, I was reflecting on how lucky we are to live in a country, or maybe a city, where most employers, with a few exceptions in investment banking and legal, value and promote work-life balance.

None of the 996 culture exists here where employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm 6 days a week.  996 is the dyslexic devil’s new number I thought to myself !

As serendipity would have it, later in the day I received a call from a client …..

This company is a large and well known organisation that actively and genuinely promotes work-life balance as part of their candidate attraction strategy.

The Manager in question was lamenting that a contractor we have working for them as an IT Systems Engineer was “not pulling his weight”.

The contractor, whom we will call Archibald for the purpose of this discussion, has been working on site for them for a a few months, gets paid for the hours that he works only and is not allowed to charge for more than eight hours per day.

Being a contractor, he does not get paid leave and only gets paid for the hours that he works.

Had Archibald refused to assist his team during crucial after hours infrastructure upgrades?

Was Archibald skirting his responsibilities and not being a team player?

Had he overstated his technical skills ?

Actually, none of the above: Archibald was apparently not working the 10-12 hours days that other permanent team members were putting in.

I was genuinely puzzled by this conversation as it seemed out of character with the overall company’s credo.

Was their commitment to work-life balance merely a well intended spin?

Was the Manager a bit old fashioned and an isolated case within the organisation? (the answer is yes, by the way).

This episode got me thinking about the culture of presenteeism: for all this talk of work-life balance, does it still lurk in the background?

I believe that when an organisation makes bold statements about work-life balance and promotes it as a point of difference in their candidate attraction and retention strategy, it is of paramount importance that they walk the walk, otherwise they risk all of their commitments to ethical behaviour, diversity, environmental sustainability etc. being seen as disingenuous hot air.

And what visibility does their executive leadership team have of the day to day treatment of individual employees and would they care?

Many employers of choice offer flexible working hours and genuinely promote a culture encouraging productivity, not presenteeism for its own sake and I would argue that most jobseekers value work flexibility and the ability to work from home as a top priority in their job search.

Balance Recruitment, for example, was named after a genuine desire to strike some balance between life and work and I believe we genuinely promote a culture where we believe we should make time for the “good stuff”.

Do other organisations feel the same way?

If you are an HR Manager, a Hiring Manager or work in IT, I would love to hear what your experience has been when it comes to this kind of work culture.  Have you had to tackle this problem and how?

To again quote the above mentioned article: “to be productive you need presence of mind, not being present in the flesh”………

PS: Archibald is back working his regular hours and the Manager is slowly starting to accept that quality of output is far more important than keeping people in the office.