Every year, The Economist publishes The World Ahead, in which their analysts predict the biggest stories that will shape the world in the coming year. Their five feature stories for 2022 cover everything from geopolitics (China revelling in democracy’s failings) to technology (the expansion of the metaverse) to fashion (the African fashion boom), but one story will have an outsized personal impact: hybrid working becoming the new normal.
Now, “the new normal” is a phrase that has been overused in the last two years, especially by prognosticators. That said, based on its data, The Economist seems to hit the nail right on the head. The gist of their prediction is that being in the office five days a week for 8 hours is truly a thing of the past. Survey data has shown that employees would like to spend about half their time in the office, whereas employers would like their employees to spend 4 days a week in the office. How much time someone actually spends present at their office will likely be a negotiation point going forward. Moreover, based on the most recent data, it is unlikely that five days in the office will be the default option in the future.
As the experts point out, widespread adoption of a hybrid office model raises questions about presenteeism bias. Presenteeism bias is the preference that employers have for employees who are physically present at their desks, no matter their performance. Even if many of those hours are unproductive, and even if the employer knows that those hours are unproductive, studies have repeatedly shown that employers reward employees that are physically present. This individual favouritism in turn leads to toxic work environments, burnout, and the bias itself can cost an economy tens of billions of dollars. If an employer favours those employees who are physically present, there are perverse incentives abound: no one wants to be the first person to clock out if all their co-workers are still there, even if those co-workers are essentially twiddling their thumbs. Thus, The Economist raises the question: what does presenteeism bias look like in a hybrid office model?
Like most answers, it all comes down to the manager/owner; the best of them have always been able to distinguish between those who are bringing results and those who are bringing their mere presence. Much of this comes down to clearly defined KPIs. People are people, after all, and people respond directly to stimuli. Few people will stay in the office until 8 PM every day unless there is some stimulus that directly encourages it. Sometimes, this stimulus is the perceived benefit—eventual promotion or bonus—of being considered a “hard worker”. Others simply do not want to be at home because their personal life is disappointing in some way. Thus, it is the manager’s duty to ensure that the right KPIs are in place that discourage presenteeism and instead encourage results. If the right KPIs are in place, the right people will be celebrated. If the right people are celebrated, the right work culture will emerge. And healthy work environments have no room for presenteeism bias.