The Presenteeism Premium
Who's in and who is out of the office?
7 May 2022
When the evolutionary anthropologists come to evaluate this riveting and peculiar moment in the history of work and humankind’s relationship to it, I hope they devote a good size paragraph of history to Lord Alan Sugar.
He had a good rant this week to his 5 million-plus Twitter followers along what journalists call the ‘why oh why’ school relating to Work From Home.
He seems to have forgotten than he made his first millions - £125 million if records are correct - by selling his electronics company AMSTRAD (“Alan Michael Sugar Trading” to BskyB in 2007. And what did Amstrad specialise in? PCS.
You see, be careful what you wish for, Sugar.
It wasn’t only Alan Sugar who was busy in 2007. It was the year that AirbnB was born, which this week announced that all employees can work from home indefinitely. Founder Brian Chesky framed this in a memo asking where the world is going and this is a very good question - because location and the agency to locate yourself is where the new employee power will or won’t be.
As the impeccable Mckinsey analysis Tera Allas notes in her latest excellent blog, the trends are clear: Mobility and freedom to work from home are highly connected to education and therefore it is precisely the educated professional classes who are causing such a headache for their resistent leaders and managers for whom presenteeism is preferred.
Can you be fully present and productive away from your desk? The battle rages on and on. Ben Page, CEO of global research firm Ipsos, thinks so. I interviewed him for my book The Nowhere Office, and indeed the podcast The Nowhere Office.
But do everyone else? The bosses, if I can use oldspeak, are clearly divided. A leading law firm has declared that for 100% ‘WFH’ you get a 20% pay cut which has not exactly played well, prompting the journalist Charlie Gowans-Eglington (@charliegowans) to remark in The Times: “OK, yes, employers will be saving rather a lot on the rent of those glossy office buildings. Meanwhile, WFH-ers will be paying for their own heating and electricity and Post-its and milk”.
Back to the economics of this. As the cost of living crisis escalates the cost of commuting or the costs of working from home - and who pays - will be clearly weighed.
Yet one key argument for a drift back to presenteeism is one of management, and was made this week by one of the biggest names in HR, Google’s ex-Chief of HR Laszlo Block.
I agree that presenteeism matters. I certainly mind that my GP Practice (General Practitioner for those reading outside of the UK) seems to have abandoned presenteeism - it is impossible to get face to face appointments, or indeed any appointments in any meaningful way (as in: when you need it). Something is very wrong when those people who need to be present are not.
But the issue for me is this: who does need to be present? And if less people than we think do - thanks to the technology, thanks - we live in hope - and to better management, then surely it actually is ok to pay a premium for those who do have to schlepp in, do the commute, be fully present in the office? HR Magazine reported my remarks on this earlier this week at the Learning and Technologies Conference.
The one thing offices and presenteeism are for, I think are for learning and networking, comments I made to Emma Jacobs for her wide-ranging piece in the Financial Times this week.
Productivity, Productivity, They’ve all got Productivity for Me!
So, Is the battle raging over presenteeism for its own sake, or productivity? I devote a chapter in my book to productivity and am delighted that the pandemic has brought it centre-stage into the discussion. It’s a thorny question, and one which a new arm of King’s College Policy Centre, devoted to Work/Place has devoted an interesting paper to, noting that:
On a statistical level, the labour productivity indices of two of the world’s leading economies, the US and the UK – determined in terms of output per hour worked – have, in the aggregate, been positive. Indeed, US labour productivity increased by 1.92 per cent in the second half of 2021, compared to the same period of the previous year, while UK labour productivity increased by 3.79 per cent considering the same comparison period…..
But with a very important caveat:
“In other words the authors find that WFH has positive and negative effects on overall project productivity depending on the metrics evaluated and the characteristics of each project – programming language used, project type, project age, and project size.”
You can see why, I hope, I call this moment in the story of work, the present moment of work, The Nowhere Office: We’re nowhere near knowing where things will end up.
We know it’s going to be able people, power, pay, technology. And how much we want to sugarcoat or Sugarcoat our arguments.
Have a good weekend. That’s today’s Saturday Substack from me.
I'm not sure Sugar's comments can be separated from where he *now* makes his money... Commercial real estate. Of course he wants people back in offices!
Hi Julia, Great post. I work for a large corporation. Before the pandemic I worked in a large open plan office which I hated. I never felt I could do any meaningful, deep work. I went in to socialise. I am so much more productive, happy and healthy since working at home. I feel it’s a shame it took a pandemic to allow me (and others like me) to be effective and more content. Phil Martin