How to combat virtual presenteeism

HR leaders suggest a series of proactive steps that must be taken by employees, managers and the organisations to address the culture of ‘virtual presenteeism’


The work-from-home or WFH culture has frequently been hailed for allowing employees a measure of flexibility and consequently, better work-life balance. However, WFH isn’t without its fair share of ills. To begin with, there has been a steady blurring of the boundaries between office and home, the professional and private zones. The problem is being compounded by the ubiquity of virtual collaboration tools driving 24/7 connectivity and an increase in expectations and accessibility. This is inevitably resulting in plummeting productivity and burnout.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by employment platform Monster, 69 per cent of American employees were facing burnout symptoms while working from home. Likewise, global office design firm Unispace’s 2021 survey of employees in the Asia Pacific region indicated that 36 per cent had difficulty switching off outside work hours. With WFH and hybrid work models predominated by WFH set to continue indefinitely, how do Indian HR leaders propose to combat this toxic culture of ‘virtual presenteeism’?

Breaking the monotony with a hybrid work arrangement

Based on the responses of thousands of US employees, a 2022 study by Gallup shows that 38 per cent – or four in 10 employees – of fully remote workers would prefer hybrid work arrangements, with a mix of WFH and in-person office experiences. The survey further indicates that people’s reasons for preferring hybrid over perpetual WFH have partly to do with being more productive and feeling connected to their organisations and co-workers. Anil Mohanty, head of people & culture, Medikabazaar, suggests something along these lines to help curb the trend of presenteesim and overwork.

“It has clearly been communicated at our organisation that no meeting should go beyond 7 p.m. for an employee – whichever geographical time zone they may be in”

Amit Chincholikar, global CHRO, Tata Consumer Products

“Both exclusive WFH and work from office have their pros and cons,” opines Mohanty, elucidating that working from office consumes time due to commute and takes away the privilege of flexibility. “Likewise, WFH entails juggling home and work pressures at the same time. Besides, working in isolation does not allow collaboration to take place in the same way that a workplace does,” he points out.

“Organisations should adopt a hybrid work model in which employees come to office three or four days a week,” he suggests, adding that employees should be allowed greater flexibility in terms of timings and days, and neither be rewarded for coming to office nor be penalised for working from home. Elaborating on how a hybrid schedule will help combat the problem of online presenteesim, Mohanty explains that an office setup is usually marked by strict timings in which an employee is forced to switch off and go home. “This, by default, precludes working beyond the standard working hours,” he says.

According to Mohanty, completely switching to a work-from-office model isn’t feasible either. “Despite work life hobbling back to old routines, WFH isn’t going away anytime soon. Therefore, going forward, it is best to retain the flexibility,” he counsels.

Finally, Mohanty advises organisations to focus on outcomes instead of presence at the workplace or online, underlining that merely being present is no guarantee of productivity or output.

“The onus for putting an end to the unhealthy culture of virtual overwork, at any rate, is on all three-employees, managers, and organisations”

Maneesha Jha Thakur, senior HR leader & coach

Drawing boundaries

Maneesha Jha Thakur, senior HR leader & coach, largely attributes the rise of virtual overwork to a lack of guardrails and best practices for replicating the physical setup of an actual office. “The absence of physical demarcation of office space at home, the inability of most workers in India to say ‘no’ to overtime, and managers not respecting their subordinates’ timings are some of the factors responsible for this virtual overwork culture,” she says, further analysing the reasons for the creation of this culture.

Thakur offers a set of cogent solutions to battle this problem. She suggests having an alarm in place to indicate the end of office hours, encouraging people to switch off. “After the designated hour, managers should be discouraged from scheduling meetings, phone calls, or discussions”.

Furthermore, she underlines the need to create time-zones when working at home and making co-workers and managers aware of those. She cites the example of a child returning from school at a specific time. “There is bound to be some hustle-bustle at home at that point. Employees should be able to mark that time window on their calendars for others to know that it is a busy hour”. Likewise, she advises marking mealtimes on one’s calendar or anything at all indicating one’s unavailability during a certain time frame for a personal exigency. “There is a need for organisations to enable a culture in which employees are able to candidly communicate their genuine personal constraints when working from home. They should not be made to feel guilty for not being accessible all the time,” adds Thakur.

Thakur also points out the need to discourage employees from logging in when unwell or at the time of a personal emergency. “Many employees keep working when unwell or even during a family engagement simply because they want to save up leaves,” she observes. “Employees should not jeopardise their health, or neglect their family life for the sake of work. They should be encouraged to go on leave should a personal or health issue crop up”.

“The onus for putting an end to the unhealthy culture of virtual overwork, at any rate, is on all three-employees, managers, and organisations,” emphasises Thakur.

“An office setup is usually marked by strict timings in which an employee is forced to switch off and go home”

Anil Mohanty, head of people & culture, Medikabazaar

Developing a speak-up culture & other proactive steps

Amit Chincholikar, global CHRO, Tata Consumer Products, opines that such problems arise because work hours during WFH are not always well defined, making it difficult to follow start and finish timings. All the same, he mentions a series of steps implemented by his own organisation for combating the trend.

“All employees are allowed at least one hour of downtime during office hours. That downtime is flexible and can be for anything-a power nap, a stroll, a meal with the family,” he informs.

“Although differing downtimes could make intra and inter-team collaboration difficult, employees coordinate and schedule meetings or discussions among themselves in a way that the problem is never felt. It works beautifully,” declares Chincholikar, underscoring the need for organisations to implement broader guardrails and retain less structure and process.

“Employees must be treated as responsible adults who want to put in a hard day’s work. Organisations must focus on specific outcomes instead of micromanaging employee work timings,” he stresses.

Moreover, Chincholikar highlights the need for organisations to give adequate downtime to employees, particularly when downtime is contributing to mental wellness. “Getting seven to eight hours of sleep at night is intrinsic to wellness. We always encourage employees to switch off after work hours, and get some rest,” he adds. “It has clearly been communicated at our organisation that no meeting should go beyond 7 p.m. for an employee – whichever geographical time zone they may be in,” he shares.

Chincholikar also recalls how his company encouraged employees to prioritise children’s education when most schools were conducting virtual classes due to the pandemic. “This was our way of telling employees that we were not concerned with outcomes alone,” he says.

But what of the widespread problem of managers not respecting employees’ timings?

As a solution, Chincholikar cites the ‘Manager Engagement Score’ at his organisation. “This is a bi-annual assessment in which managers are evaluated on the basis of feedback from subordinates. Managers are assessed on the basis of whether or not they listen to others on the team, take their suggestions into consideration, or show respect for their timings and need for emotional well-being,” he says, describing the process.

“Finally, while efforts to fight virtual presenteeism must be made by employees, managers, and the organisations, the tone must, first and foremost, be set by the organisations,” opines Chincholikar. “Every organisation needs to encourage a speak-up culture in which employees are able to frankly express their problems and exigencies,” he concludes.

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