Ending presenteeism through flexible working

Working from home presents plenty of other challenges, chief among them is how to maintain employee engagement and measure productivity while empowering employees to achieve goals and stay connected.

The rise of flexible working marks the beginning of the end for presenteeism. In the 2021 workplace, the challenge for managers is to learn to motivate, engage and trust staff out of their direct line of sight. For employees, it is to ensure all their hard (remote) work doesn’t go unnoticed.

By Peter Barrett

Businesses around the world have embraced flexible work at record speeds over the past year. With three out of four Australian workers recently surveyed in a PwC Australia report Changing Places preferring a mix of remote and in-office working, it appears the trend is here to stay.

One of the plusses of this enforced experiment has been the end of presenteeism – employees showing up to the office in body but not spirit and, in some cases, working longer hours than necessary to demonstrate commitment. 

Often it is insecurity that causes workers to stay back late, keen to show they are present. Working from home presents plenty of other challenges.

Chief among them is how to maintain employee engagement and measure productivity in remote workers while empowering employees to achieve goals and stay connected.

Dr Ben Hamer, PwC Australia’s Future of Work lead, says the answer begins with a top-down, organisational-wide investment in upscaling the capability of leaders. 

“When we think about the future of hybrid work, the single source of failure, but also the biggest opportunity for making it work, is leaders and leadership capability,” Hamer says. 

“The challenge is that traditionally we’ve seen organisations invest so much in their early career talent and things like graduate programs, but they invest comparatively so much less when it comes to their leaders.”

Increase your team check-ins

That doesn’t mean individual leaders can’t work to improve their management style in the absence of a formal training program. 

Hamer says managers should aim for more frequent “check-ins” with team members to compensate for lack of in situ workflow conversations and drive a sense of team connection and cohesion, including more social face-to-face or virtual get-togethers. 

“A lot of it is around transparent and frequent communication, because in the absence of communication and knowing what’s happening, people will fill in the gaps for themselves. And that’s where insecurities flourish and where people become anxious.”

The blurring of lines between work and home has also meant leaders now have a greater obligation to step up and look after employee wellbeing. 

Hamer recommends leaders access free online resources listed on the Australian Government’s Head to Health platform to proactively identify employees who might be on the verge of burnout or feel isolated or lonely. 

“There’s a massive obligation around stepping into that space from a social and an ethical perspective,” says Hamer. 

“But if you want to think about it from a business point of view, when people are lonely or isolated, they’re not going to be in a position where they’re empowered to do their best work, either.”

5 ways to define expectations

What can employees do to make sure they remain front-of-mind for their manager? 

Future work expert and CEO of Ignite Global, Kim Seeling Smith, says flexible work teams must create “target-rich” objectives and clearly defined goals. 

“Target-rich objectives... are outcomes, they’re measurable, which means they’re either a tangible result or they have some sort of measurement attached, be it a number, a percentage, a timeframe, a frequency. And they’re written in real language.”

Once expectations have been clearly set and understood, it doesn’t really matter whether the employee works from the office or remotely. 

If managers are slow to set up target-rich objectives, the employees should take the initiative and be proactive. Seeling Smith suggests employees follow these steps: 

  1. Sit down with your manager and agree on three to five measurable outcomes for your role
  2. Establish a regular meeting time to update each other on what is happening with your projects
  3. Identify and agree on clear objectives (for example, “to complete my task on time and to expectations”)
  4. Make sure the objectives are documented
  5. Maintain your sense of being part of a team by participating in team activities, from regular structured meetings to impromptu informal get-togethers.

“In addition, you can establish a regular cadence to talk about things that are near and dear to your heart as an employee, like your career development and your strengths,” says Seeling Smith. 

“How can you spend more time working in areas of your strengths? What motivates you? What do you need to have in place in order to really go the extra mile and to continue to add value?”

As we get used to a hybrid work environment, Hamer urges leaders to maintain their sense of compassion towards staff and continue to display the vulnerability many revealed at the height of the pandemic.

“That empathy that leaders were displaying – let’s not throw away that concern, and that care, and the way that they were checking in on their people. They still need to maintain that... even though the driver for it might be slightly different.”

December/January 2022
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