A Digital Era Snow Day?

On January 22nd and 23rd, 2016, the Baltimore/Washington region experienced an epic snowstorm. When it was all done, a record 29.3 inches of the white stuff was measured at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, making it the number one snowfall on record. The city of Washington was paralyzed. Government shut down. Schools shut down. Businesses shut down. But did they all really shut down? When we are absent from work, are we really? When we are absent from home, are we really? Conversely, when we are present at work, are we really? When we are present at home, are we really?

In the digital era, the line between absent and present is a bit of a paradox: absenteeism and presenteeism depend on your perspective.

Presenteeism has typically been examined in the context of decreased productivity by employees coming to work sick. The term is considered the opposite of absenteeism and has received a good deal of attention in the management and human capital realm. Mostly, presenteeism is considered when studying employees who come to work with the intention of being productive, but cannot be because of illness. Lately, there has been attention given to employees who come to the office well enough to work but do not because they are engaging in personal business on the job. Is this part of the new “work-life balance” paradigm as we blur the lines between personal and professional lives? How much has technology, flexplace/flextime, and amenities such as on-site daycare or fitness centers created “borderless” divisions between work, home, and leisure? And, how much does your organizational culture tolerate this in the name of employee satisfaction, employee development, or innovation?

Tolerance for this work-life boundary crossing is usually part of the organizational culture and rarely part of a formal policy. This type of culture allows employee autonomy to negotiate these boundaries. This is a culture that acknowledges, respects, and even supports an employee’s life outside the office. Research shows allowing a certain amount of presenteeism may be beneficial and indeed some human resource practices acknowledge the need to assist employees in their work-life integration as personal business could cross into the workday. One way to enhance the flexibility between work and non-work life realm boundaries may be allowing employees to engage in some degree of personal business on the job.

Studies show employees spending about one hour and twenty minutes in an eight-hour workday engaged in non-work activities. Qualitative research suggests that non-work related presenteeism may be due to convenience, time constraints, timing, or boredom. If individuals are engaging in these activities on work time because of such things as boredom, then non-work related presenteeism is indeed a human resources issue. But it could be a mere “distraction” issue enabled by the technology afforded to us in the digital era.

Presenteeism costs productivity and thus costs a company money. Alternatively, what of the employee who does work at home or after work hours? The “distraction” of being digitally present at work while actually physically absent now leads to presenteeism at home. A ‘workspace at home’ and a ‘workspace at work’ is often indistinguishable. In the digital era there is no more traditional segmentation of home life and office life. For some the concept of “work” and “home” no longer exist. These might be the same employees who cross work-life boundaries all day. Are they practicing presenteeism in their home life? Should it become an accepted cost of doing business? And is engaging in non-work related presenteeism a necessary evil for achieving work-life balance? Is presenteeism the new paradigm for this balance in the digital era? There are no time-work studies that show the amount of time spent in “non-family activities” while at home. However, households have routines just as offices do. The digital era impacts those routines. Just as allowing employees to engage in some degree of personal business on the job, the digital era is forcing us to allow some freedom to engage in professional business while at home. There is now presenteeism in one’s home life. That too may be a necessary cost of doing business.

So what are we to make of this in the digital era?

We have connectivity tools and whether they are good or bad is a matter of perspective. Before the digital age, it used to be about what one knew; now it is how quickly one can Google it. Wherever we are, we have the ability to be somewhere else. So, when does presenteeism turn into absenteeism? I suppose it is a matter of perspective.

The perspective of how we measure what really matters may have to be altered. In the digital age, we are more productive. However, the increase in productivity is going down. But, what is productivity? The ability to conduct virtual work has led to “social loafing” at work – another way to say presenteeism. Social loafing extends beyond virtual work. At a recent high school show, I witnessed a gentleman across the aisle repeatedly texting on his tablet. He may have been more “productive,” but he was certainly partially absent for his son or daughter’s performance. The ability to be more productive and less productive at the same time – present yet absent – is quite a paradox and a matter of perspective. The rapid increase in technology in the digital age has yielded diminishing returns – we are more productive, but perhaps less efficient. The “noise” of technology has fostered presenteeism in many aspects of our daily lives.

Is there no hope? Will we eventually always be somewhere else? What do we make of all this?

  • First, we have to realize there has always been lagging productivity until we understand how to use the technology. The technological advances of the First World War were not exploited because the belligerents were constrained by the military strategies still being used since 1870. We must develop new and different strategies to fully exploit the digital advances. Leave your tablet in the car at your child’s high school musical. I did.
  • Second, our brains still operate the same way they always did. There is always going to be a new version that is more intuitive and easier to use than the previous one. Still, there is a learning curve that impacts productivity. Then, there is a new version and the cycle starts again. Perhaps there is something to be said for skipping generational technology upgrades.
  • Finally, technology has again grown so fast that it has surpassed our management practices. While we function in the digital age, management is still rooted deep in the past. While efficiency in manufacturing depends only on the producer, efficiency in the digital age depends both on the producer and the consumer. The technology must be produced and the consumer has to be able to use it. We need to rethink how we train and test – experiential training has been shown to be much more effective than traditional classroom.

Presenteeism in the digital era is neither good nor bad. It is a matter of perspective and an outcome of the digital age that should be managed. We need to understand strategies to manage it, understand that our brains have limitations, and we need to learn differently. In short, no matter how much we advance technology in the digital age, we are still humans with human limitations. We get distracted.

There are predictions for more snow tomorrow. Whatever happened to the “snow day?”


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