Presenteeism: Navigating an Unintended Side Effect of Hybrid Work

December 7, 2023 / #Unstuck Government, #Workforce Management

In the evolving post-Covid work environment, the push and pull of many managers wanting workers in offices and most staff preferring to work from home when possible, has given rise to the popularity of hybrid schedules as a sort of middle of the road compromise.

Yet hybrid work, typically thought of as a schedule where employees go into the office at least one day per week and work at home for the rest, has introduced, or at least exacerbated, a new challenge: presenteeism.

Defined as being physically present but mentally disengaged, presenteeism can undermine productivity, collaboration, and overall workplace well-being. As federal agencies increasingly transition to hybrid models, it’s important to understand the dangers of presenteeism and implement thoughtful strategies to mitigate its impact. Here’s how.

Understanding Presenteeism

Presenteeism is more than just showing up for work; it’s about being physically present while failing to perform job duties effectively. The consequences of presenteeism ripple across the entire work process, leading to miscommunication, missed deadlines, accidents, and the development of inefficient processes.

Plus, attitudes are contagious. When employees witness others merely going through the motions, it can foster a culture of complacency, and that hinders creativity, collaboration, and overall workplace morale.

The Hybrid Work Dilemma

Recent studies have highlighted a reluctance among workers to return to the traditional office setting. That’s understandable, as remote work has given employees newfound flexibility, allowing them to achieve better work-life balance and enhance productivity without the burdens of commuting. Yet often there’s no replacement for seeing colleagues face to face, whether for meetings, brainstorms, or simply to build a sense of culture and team.

However, the shift to a hybrid work model introduces new issues. Employees, once accustomed to the autonomy of remote work, where they can take a few minutes to get the laundry done, pick up their prescriptions, buy a card for their loved one, or volunteer at their child’s school, may struggle with the notion of going back to a schedule that either precludes those things entirely or requires them to be accomplished only during nights or weekends, when many families are already overscheduled.

However, by thoughtfully addressing the issue of presenteeism, agencies can not only reduce its prevalence, but improve efficiency within a hybrid work schedule and increase employees’ overall job satisfaction.

Straightforward Strategies to Combat Presenteeism

  1. Set Clear Hybrid Work Policies: Agencies should establish transparent and clear hybrid work policies that go beyond a rigid 9-5 schedule. Emphasize that being in the office doesn’t need to equate to an entire workday. For instance, employees could come to the office for an important meeting and a team brainstorm, then leave to work from home the rest of the day. Encourage managers to communicate clear expectations, such as requiring workers to be in the office for a certain number of hours, not contiguous days, and letting them choose how to implement that.
  2. Optimize In-Person Time: Try to schedule meetings and events on days when in-person collaboration is most beneficial. This ensures that time spent in the office is more productive and fosters meaningful connections.
  3. Promote Small Breaks: Break the 9-5 blahs by encouraging short breaks throughout the day. For instance, managers can normalize 45-minute meetings rather than an hour to allow for mental refreshment and schedule flexibility.
  4. Enhance Workplace Enjoyment While Minimizing Hassles: Make the office a place where employees want to be by organizing social activities, events such as yoga sessions, team-building exercises, or casual gatherings. At the same time, agencies can offer perks that ease the burden and hassle of commuting or allow workers the time to accomplish things during work hours that they’d otherwise have to tackle when home in the evening. Two examples are covering transportation costs and providing a set amount of weekly time that employees can leave the office to use the gym.
  5. Take an Individualized Approach: Acknowledge that “one size doesn’t fit all” in hybrid work. Managers should engage in regular discussions with employees to understand their needs and concerns, and that fosters a collaborative approach to scheduling and work arrangements. This individualized approach has another positive side effect: It can help foster a more diverse workforce by accommodating more diverse cultural and religious practices, allowing employees to celebrate more non-traditional holidays or partake in customs important to their culture or religion.
  6. Empower Through Surveys: Conduct regular surveys to gather employee feedback and preferences. Empowering employees to have a say in their work arrangements fosters a sense of agency and can lead to increased productivity and enthusiasm for hybrid schedules.

By addressing presenteeism head-on and embracing the principles of a flexible and accommodating hybrid models, federal agencies can create a work environment that prioritizes both productivity and employee well-being in this new era of hybrid work.


Russell Miller is Director of Implementation for Government Workforce Management, at OPEXUS. He has extensive experience providing implementation support for the HR Product Suite at OPEXUS. His expertise helps ensure products are delivered on time and on budget. He is passionate about using technology to improve the day-to-day functionality across government HR processes. In his free time, Russ enjoys Boston’s sport events, boating, and spending time with his family.

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