• Dr. Ravit Oren

“I woke up weak with the chills, but a sick day while working remotely didn’t seem justified”

If the remote work model isn’t managed properly, people will show up to work but won’t be authentically present. ■ Virtual Presenteeism – an old organizational disease with a post-Covid 19 twist.

"for most of the day I was just staring at my laptop"

“I woke up weak with the chills. All I wanted to do was stay in bed, dim the lights, tune out the world and rest at home. But the thought of taking a day off when I was at home anyways felt wrong. My team had a tough deadline, I didn’t want to disappoint them and I was worried that my manager would think I’m lazy. So, I joined the Zoom meeting, logged onto Slack, checked my emails, but for most of the day I was just staring at my laptop. I felt awful – and just waited for the day to end.”

This is just one example of “Presenteeism” – a common phenomenon in the workplace that has escalated since the transition to remote work. This expression was coined by Prof. Cary Cooper of The University of Manchester to explain the phenomenon in which unhealthy workers, in body and mind, show up to work physically but not psychologically. A worker that does not feel well will come to work on time, sit in front of the computer, stare at it for hours and might even “work” overtime but will do so with little motivation to achieve or create anything. The result: cumulative financial damage that in the U.S. alone amounts to $150 billion a year.

Despite the accelerated technological developments available today, most of which are geared towards speed and efficiency, the Western world is still captivated by the perception that most of our days should be filled with work and the quality of our work should be measured by the amount of time invested in it. This is an outdated concept that endorses quantity over quality and input over output and undermines the quality of work, motivation and performance.

Back in the 1950’s Parkinson’s Law theory determined that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". Meaning, if we require workers to report to work 9 to 5, five days a week, expect them to work overtime and always be available – they will comply, but they will also drag out their tasks over the course of the day with no motivation to become more efficient while their job performance declines contingent on their Presenteeism.

Virtual Presenteeism

Theoretically, working remotely enables a kind of physical flexibility that could have eliminated Presenteeism in the workplace for good. However, in actuality, the problem was simply copied from the office to home and actually intensified. In a Canada Life survey conducted among workers who transitioned to working remotely following the Covid-19 outbreak, 46% of respondents felt more pressure at work and 35% continued working even when they were not feeling well. 40% of workers who showed up for work sick reported feeling “not sick enough” to justify taking a sick day. 26% said that the heavy workload did not enable them to take a sick day and 16% said they showed up for work because they feared being perceived by their superiors as redundant. So why is this happening?

One reason is the lack of visibility when working remotely. Employees may feel that their superiors “do not see them”. An employee who feels invisible will act in order to regain visibility to prove how vital and essential they are to the workplace. They will immediately answer calls, their Slack will constantly be “available”, and they’ll respond to emails late at night to show everyone that they are working. Thus, unintentionally, a new problem is created: lack of authenticity due to the need to constantly “perform” while blurring the lines between work and home – creating stress, burnout and imbalance.

The main issue is not the work model, it is the outdated organizational culture that hasn’t adapted to the new world or to remote work. A workplace dedicated to perpetuating norms of instant availability and round the clock work, will not only copy the problem of Presenteeism it will worsen it. This leads to elevated stress levels and anxiety, burnout and poor employee health.

46% of respondents felt more pressure at work and 35% continued working even when they were not feeling well. 40% of workers who showed up for work sick reported feeling “not sick enough” to justify taking a sick day.

How to Prevent Organizational Presenteeism

  • Organizational culture promotes trust. Trust is a vital component for all work models and particularly in remote work that requires a great deal of flexibility. Let go of micro-managing and pettily counting work hours. Instead measure quality and productivity. And convey to your workers that you trust them.

  • Organizational culture promotes life. In order to prevent Presenteeism, a fulfilling personal life outside of work should be encouraged. Establishing a policy that prohibits shop talk outside of work hours and enforcing it among all employees, including managers, is a good starting point.

  • Clear, transparent and asynchronous communication. Managers are required to define a clear communication model whereby every employee will understand what is expected of them, when they should be available and when not. Additionally, in remote work models communication should be asynchronous so that the information is available to all workers at all times.

  • Pay attention to work loads. Studies shows that a heavy workload is one of the causes of Presenteeism. Therefore, workloads must be monitored, proportioned and balanced among employees and workers should be discouraged from taking on overtime.

  • Get Personal. Take the time to regularly have real conversations with each employee to assess their personal and professional standing, identify red flags and provide the support needed.

  • Set an example. Assimilating a healthy and balanced organizational culture will succeed or fail based on the personal example set by management. At the end of the workday disconnect from Slack and your email and get a life.


Written by Dr. Ravit Oren, an HR expert specializing in innovative Talent Management, reward systems, and performance evaluations. Dr. Oren is a renowned lecturer for organizational leadership at Bar Ilan University and the Israeli Institute of Technology — Technion. Currently, Dr. Oren is the Chief of Research at Keepy.ai, which provides tools and insights to assist managers to better understand their people’s needs and act to create a supportive environment. This article was published on TheMarker.