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3 ways to overcome presenteeism and create a positive employee experience

Blogger Series graphic showing woman blowing her nose on a tissue whilst at work in the office.James is the small-business Lead on Microsoft 365. With over 15 years’ corporate and seven years’ start-up experience, he understands what it takes to start a company, hire people, and drive business growth. In his spare time, he’s a family man who plays rugby for his local club and is occasionally known for his DIY endeavours!

What is presenteeism?

Given that we’re in the midst of winter, illnesses and colds will undoubtedly be doing the rounds. Thankfully, at Microsoft, we have a flexible working culture where you can work from home if you’re feeling slightly under the weather. Germs are kept to yourself and it’s prevented from spreading around the office.

But presenteeism is becoming a real problem for businesses. In fact, the number of people coming into the office whilst sick has more than tripled since 2010. This is because many organisations still place more value on being physically present at the office than being productive. There still appears to be a stronger preference on the number of hours worked over the output that’s delivered. It’s not good for business. And it’s certainly not creating a positive employee experience either.

White ceramic mug on a white table beside black eyeglasses and tissues

The four-day working week

Perpetual Guardian, a company based in New Zealand actually trialled a four-day working week and the results were astounding. In total, 78 percent of employees reported that they could successfully balance work and life and there was a 7% drop in stress. Their life satisfaction also increased by 5% and there was no impact on productivity, despite fewer hours being worked.

To me, it seems to be a no-brainer. If your employees are delivering results then you should let them work how they work best – whether that means they work a four-day week, work from home on a Friday, or leave the office a little earlier to do the school run.

If you trust your people to get the job done, and they know you respect the fact they have families and other interests, they’ll be far happier in the long run. This will make a big difference when it comes to productivity, retention and even when hiring top talent. The fact is that happier employees are more productive.

I’ve worked at Microsoft for over seven years now and most people spend a couple of days a week working from home to get a bit of focus time. This doesn’t mean that they do less work. In fact, I’d even say they’re able to do more because they’re given the space they need to think and be creative.

A survey by National Accident Helpline revealed nine out of ten UK workers admitted dragging themselves out of their sickbeds to go to work. In fact, over fifty percent of workers took no sick days in the last six months. It’s not hard to imagine how unproductive those individuals were while they were feeling unwell.

So why does it happen?

One of the main problems I’ve seen is peer pressure. No-one wants to be seen as a slacker while everyone else is putting in long hours. But if your organisation has a culture of presenteeism, it becomes harder and harder for people to take the time off when they really need it. If you see a colleague coming into the office with a terrible cold, you’re more likely to feel the need to do the same.

Companies like Perpetual Guardian have the right idea. But for most of us, a four-day working week is still a long way off and not something that could work for every industry. But what can you do? The first step is a culture shift. Changing your company’s culture to eliminate presenteeism is a huge undertaking, but from my experience I’d suggest some quick wins you can do in the meantime:

  1. Don’t be afraid to recruit applicants who can’t commit to full-time working hours.

This will slow your recruitment process down and you’re likely to miss out on some fantastic candidates by excluding them due to their other commitments.

  1. Put more stock in quality of work rather than quantity.

This will encourage your teams to work smarter and be more productive rather than just making themselves look busy. If your teams are overworked, then it’s likely to lead to downtime in the long run. Some people feel pressured to come into work when they’re ill when there’s lots going on in the office, rather than taking the time they need to recuperate. This then puts other people at risk of becoming ill, whilst also driving down that individual’s performance because they’re not working to their best abilities.

  1. Use technology to provide flexible ways of working.

Technology can help businesses stay productive, even when employees are out of the office. Microsoft Teams allows people to connect and work together from anywhere. This barrier-less way of working will mean your employees will feel trusted to work their own way, take time of the office when they need to – for physical or mental reasons – and have more energy to deliver their best work.

Make sure you encourage your teams to take breaks and really switch off so they can recuperate. Whilst technology gives us the ability to work flexibly, it doesn’t have to mean always-on working.

The power really is in your hands.

Learn more:

8 tips for a better work-life balance

5 ways I use AI, as a working mum, to achieve a better work-life balance

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5 faces of today’s employee’s and how to provide the best tools to cater for all