Digital presenteeism – how did I miss it?

Our need to show we are present

I recently read an article in a broadsheet newspaper which discussed how agile working had become the norm. The article explained how technology and social desires had started to dictate where and when we work.

This wasn’t a surprise to me. Autonomy, freedom to work from a more convenient location and, ultimately, being trusted, are driving a new era of how we can deliver legal and wider professional services.

At Tenet, our small law firm very much promotes agile working and it helps in so many different ways.
However, for all of those organisations promoting employee engagement through policies such as agile working, are we are sleepwalking into an age of ‘digital presenteeism’? Digital presenteeism (a phrase my wife came up with) refers to the need to instantly respond to messages, emails, calls or any other communication tools used in work.

Although this article is not directly related to Tenet’s niche area of work, as flexible working is at our core I’m keen to know from other business owners and managers if they feel they’ve also allowed their colleagues to fall into this digital trap.

So, do you think we suffer with ‘digital presenteeism’ and should we be concerned about it?

A shift to flexible working

At Tenet, our firm has grown from what was once a start-up consisting of me (Arun Chauhan) to what will soon be a team of 11. A key attraction has been our efforts to demonstrate how we completely trust our team. Part of that show of trust, and recognition for our social desires for autonomy, has been our positive approach to remote working.

This was, and still is, great but, as with all good things, you tend to gloss over the bad.

In our industry, certainly for myself and my colleagues, having worked in large law firms, you feel you become institutionalised. This isn’t a bad thing, I have a lot of time for my previous employer. However, for a few – or perhaps for many – that need to show your physical presence, always remained an undertone, to the work you do. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing as visibility can work in a number of ways.

The need to be seen, to be heard or to simply show up and say “I am here and working hard,” made me feel like I could justify (in part) my existence.

The urgency of today’s communication

We now live in a world where we receive things quickly, especially when it comes to communication.

When I started my career 19 years ago, we had post (yes, hard copy letters.  No electronics involved). We had perhaps three to four letters a day. I would have time to think and respond accordingly. I may have taken a few calls in the day but I had a lot of time to think.

We now frequently have in excess of a hundred emails a day and we have grown an urge to respond immediately to show ‘I am here’. Our responses don’t necessarily carry substance eg a simple “yes, received”. Perhaps that is courteous.  Perhaps it says more about the recipient than the sender.

Why is this a problem?

What I have noticed, in our firm, is that I have potentially created a problem.

I have been so determined to promote collaborative and remote working, to show it can work, I have unknowingly created the start of an environment of ‘digital presenteeism’.

I feel the need to show my team not only that I’m there for them but also that ‘I’m here and working hard’, only this time, I show it through email and messaging instead of by being physically at the central office location we do have.

Remote working is made possible through collaborative working software, direct messaging amongst teams etc. What do we do if a message lands? We want to – and often do – reply instantly. What is driving that behaviour?

I think the need to respond almost instantly, to show we’re available and paying attention is driven by the institutionalised part of ourselves that wants to show we are ever-present. However, I do think us as leaders have unwittingly set the tone for our teams to feel the need to show they are digitally present and respond quickly.

By my responding at all hours and always saying “I am available”, I have unknowingly started to create a culture with that expectation (despite the best intentions of myself and my team).

This approach is wrong on many fronts:

  • Our time to work is our time to work

If we promote flexible and agile working, we must respect that does not mean people will always be available. Their time to switch off is just that. Yes it takes self-discipline (and I am guilty of lacking this at times) but there should not be an implied pressure to respond instantly just because someone has sent you an email or direct message.

  • Time communications carefully

Outlook has a delayed send function. At Tenet we are getting much better at using that, we still slip but we’re only human. We want to get the emails sent but this actually means they are now giving another person just one more email to deal with to clear down their inbox. If they too feel the pressures of digital presenteeism, this can take valuable time away from their friends, family or time to relax.

  • Set the expectation levels

When we take digital presenteeism to communications outside of our organisation, the issues it presents, can get worse.

I work in a service industry and, for some reason, I think that good quality service means responding at ungodly hours from time to time. Perhaps some clients appreciate it. Perhaps others think (or we want them to think) ‘look how late you’re working’ but often it’s not initially expected by the client and we create higher expectations going forward.

Sure, we may have clients in other time zones and instant replies make it more workable. Sometimes we have deadlines and time-critical work so we need to communicate quickly at unsociable hours, however we should be conscious to not make it the norm.

  • We’re risking not being present in our everyday lives

We have forgotten how to be bored. We need our smartphones on hand to plug the gap of an advert, silence or nothingness. Let’s not forget, boredom is the time when we sometimes get our best ideas.

Today, no leader can afford to be indifferent to the challenge of engaging employees in the work of creating the future. Engagement may have been optional in the past, but its pretty much the whole game today. - Gary Hamel

‘Technology has created the potential for people never to switch off’

I referred earlier to an article I’d read in the business section of a popular broadsheet newspaper (a particularly good article by Sophie Smith*).

In this article, it was said that only 6% of employees in the UK continue to work the traditional clocking-in and clocking-out from 9am to 5pm. The article gives other statistics about the changing world we work in but made the point that ‘tech has created the potential for people never to switch off’. This made me think, what does the future hold? What expectations are we creating for the generation that follows?

The phrase ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’ is often used, I couldn’t agree more with this – but I have a slightly different take. I want to treat people the way I want my kids to be treated. When it comes to their time at work in 10-15 years’ time, I don’t want them to have to feel they have to be forever present. I don’t want them to have to suffer with digital presenteeism.

For that reason I wrote this article. I may not be able to change the world but I can start by changing my own approach. If a few like-minded people see we may be causing a problem by the way we lead, please just like, share or comment.

#leadership #agileworking #culture #flexibleworking #presenteeism

(* The journalist is Sophie Smith of the Business section of the Daily Telegraph. Her article was on Thursday 9 May 2019.)

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