Sage advice on moving up the ladder says that if you want to compete and even overcome the top dogs, you have to put in serious face time. Make yourself visible like this, the theory goes, and you'll establish the normalcy and importance of your supposedly hardworking presence. But just how much "extra" does a typical worker stay on the clock to get noticed?
A recent study by Maxis Global Benefits Network on work-life balance found that, on average, American workers log 23 extra hours every month just to be seen, with 74 percent working in an office with a desk-time culture. That's close to the United Arab Emirates, where workers put in the most get-attention hours, at 24 per month. South African employees, by comparison, do the least extra, at 14 hours a month.
This is annoying enough, but here's the rub for business leaders: Workers who put in this extra notice-me time aren't necessarily going to give you more for the hours. They might be in the office at their desks, yes, but similar to other research, the study found that individuals who work the longer hours aren't more productive. You basically end up paying them to compete for your attention.
Now, some of this might relate to Parkinson's Law, which essentially says that you'll expand your work to fill whatever time you've got available. If people perceive that the shortest amount of time to be seen at the office is nine hours instead of eight, for example, they might subconsciously spread their tasks out to fit the new standard. That is, it might not necessarily be a fully intentional choice by the employees to cheat their employers out of the 23 hours of pay, but rather a result of implicit bias.
Johnny Warström, CEO and co-founder of interactive presentation company Mentimeter, acknowledges that the issue stems from the culture cultivated in the office itself.
"If there is a culture of staying late, and doing overtime," says Warström, "workers infer that this is an expectation, putting in extra hours to prove their commitment and dedication to their employer."
"I truly believe that the main factor is poor leadership. No employee wakes up one day with a sudden desire to sit in front of the computer and pretend to work, but this is something that happens because it is being encouraged by managers. Only an incredibly toxic culture allows this sort of behavior to happen, and inadequate leadership is entirely responsible for it. The problem is that many companies are directly encouraging presenteeism by handing out rewards and promotion and praising those who are 'seen' to be giving their all."
Warström says that if we could eliminate the pressure to be seen working extra hours, employees likely would focus more on efficiency so they could leave on time, which would help productivity. Work-life balance would be better, too--Warström believes the current emphasis on presenteeism corrodes business growth by encouraging costly burnout, which further destroys the culture, engagement, and loyalty. And Mikkelsen, who is concerned that people are "spinning the wheel" instead of contributing to the progress of humanity and society, says that if workers were happier because of better work-life balance, that improved well-being naturally would have a positive influence on motivation and productivity.
"Burnout is incredibly expensive for both the employee and the employer, and so is a broken company culture," asserts Mikkelsen. "It's disappointing for workers to commit to a certain number of weekly hours on their contract, and then be continually expected to perform against a vague and invisible secondary set. Respect goes both ways, and employers need to understand how dishonest this practice is, and how it affects the level of trust that's able to develop between them and their employees as a result."
Warström says that leading by example is the best way to combat the overwork. For example, he doesn't send late-night emails so that employees don't think he expects them to do the same. But on a larger scale, leaders need to be more vocal and put the myth that extra hours equals extra output to bed. He encourages leaders to put policies in place that empower workers to make healthy and honest choices about how they get tasks done.
Mikkelsen agrees that change has to come from the top and that education about the myth is necessary. He recommends Cal Newport's book Deep Work, which emphasizes how avoiding distraction is better than increasing the number of hours at the office for productivity.
"The biggest lie in business," Mikkelsen says, "is that someone is working just because they're sat at their desk and in front of their computer. Allow workers to work in a way and in a place that suits them best, and then reward them for the results that they achieve, rather than for the number of hours they put in."
"Take genuine responsibility for the culture of your business," Warström concludes. "Don't just run team building workshops to tick off a box. Measure change initiatives and speak to your employees about their experience. Address symptoms of presenteeism and encourage your employees to leave on time. Don't reward overtime for the sake of it, and clearly communicate and demonstrate to your team that their well-being matters."