Presenteeism is dead. May it rest in peace.

Fifteen years ago, I was conducting an exit interview for a very nice colleague who was leaving one of the UK’s largest utility companies. It was the first time that I had encountered the extreme cult of presenteeism. He explained that our new regime of expecting colleagues to work to targets and outcomes wasn’t for him. He was used to the old days when you came in at 9am; read the newspaper; waited for the tea trolley to come round at 10.30am; did a bit of work from 11.30am; knocked off for lunch; and then repeated the same in the afternoon till it was time to go home at 5pm.

When I worked at the BBC, I had several colleagues in London who were so exhausted by the horrors of their commute that they seemed to spend most of the day recovering to face the trip home.

How refreshing to see PWC boss Kevin Ellis state in The Sunday Times that Covid-19 had “bashed away presenteeism for ever.” He pointed out there is no longer a playbook for workers or employees. But, we at Black Isle are of the view that we need to create a new one asap.

In the same edition of The Sunday Times there was a graphic description of how Canary Wharf is a ghost town. In the old work of work, every day 72,000 used to pour off the Jubilee Line and up the escalators. These days only 11,000 have to mind the gap.

As the UK Government encourages people to return to offices, we all now face solving the biggest puzzle in business – how will the new world of work actually work?

Remote working has given many a newfound freedom. It will have liberated others to be more productive with their daily hours, freed from the torture of travel. But it raises many other existential questions. It can be divisive; leave people isolated; widen inequalities; and has the potential to puncture team working and productivity.

One senior executive told me recently that for her with her young family it didn’t seem like home working. “It feels more like I’ve taken home to work.” How can we ensure we separate work and home when it’s all taking place in the same square yards? How can we stop being always on?

So, let’s toast the death of presenteeism. But let’s not celebrate till we’ve worked out what’s been born in its wake.

Author: Atholl Duncan, Chairman, Black Isle Group

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