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Why are young workers unable to overcome presenteeism?

Even in a changing work environment, junior employees are much less likely to be able to work flexibly than their bosses. Why?

The rise of flexible work has been heralded as one of the pandemic’s most significant shifts. The narrative goes that newly empowered employees, particularly knowledge workers, can now choose when they work, fitting their work schedule around their personal lives rather than being in front of their computers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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However, new data suggests that this workday flexibility may be primarily reserved for managers. According to a July 2022 study of 2,000 knowledge workers in the United States and the United Kingdom conducted by digital work hub Qatalog and software-development platform Gitlab, 74% of executives can work on their own timetable, compared to only 24% of junior staff. This implies that there may be a significant difference between those who can control their hours and work asynchronously and those who cannot.

These findings are puzzling, given that companies benefit from increased workforce productivity and wellness when workers of all levels have access to flexibility. Experts attribute this gap to presenteeism, a problem that has plagued younger workers for years; in a remote-work or hybrid world, this means being online or in-chair during traditional working hours, rather than enjoying the autonomy afforded to more senior colleagues.  

But why exactly is the freedom to set your own timetable a privilege available for senior workers, even as more junior workers find themselves mired in ‘normal’ hours? Can this divide narrow, or is the presenteeism that drives this simply unavoidable on the first few rungs on the career ladder, regardless of whether it’s in-office or at home? 

How presenteeism sways junior 

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In some ways, presenteeism is a throwback to the industrial era, when factory owners needed workers on-site and measured productivity by tangible output. Longer hours spent at the computer came to symbolise productivity as office culture evolved and output became less identifiable.

“We clung to presenteeism from the old days,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London. Managers, he claims, became accustomed to judging employees’ productivity based on appearances, while employees learned to focus on impression management – appearing busy and always available for tasks.

A junior worker has to earn status, seniority and credibility – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

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However, the pressure to ‘perform’ work has always favoured junior employees. “While senior employees have built their career capital, younger employees have a greater onus to stand out and prove themselves,” Chamorro-Premuzic says. According to him, junior workers are more likely to be concerned with’making it’ in their careers and developing a positive reputation, which often entails conforming to perceptions of what a ‘good’ junior worker should do.

Chamorro-Premuzic believes that presenteeism is primarily a conversation about trust; workers must earn the trust of more senior colleagues before being given more autonomy. “Humans are by nature hierarchical: if you’re new, you have to start from the bottom,” he says. “Because this isn’t going to change, a junior employee must earn status.” Seniority and credibility. Everyone is put through the same test as a sort of initiation.”

Jessica Reeder, senior strategy and operations manager at Gitlab in New York City, agrees that there is a link between trust and presenteeism, noting that lower-level roles face more presenteeism pressure. “The assumption is that the executives are invested in the company and no one needs to know if they’re working, but the recent graduate may not have the same motivation or passion for their work.”

However, it’s not just about trusting juniors as good or bad workers. In some cases, organisations want their younger employees to learn all facets of the industry before being afforded more independence, such as acquiring cultural etiquette, professional networks and jargon, which can be harder to achieve when working in isolation.

The growing flexibility gap 

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Presenteeism has moved online in the digital age, with workers swapping late-night shifts in the office for near-constant availability on email, Zoom, and messaging platforms. However, the rise in remote working caused by the pandemic appears to have created an even greater trust gap between managers, who can craft their work schedules, and junior employees, who frequently have to show availability.

According to Helen Hughes, associate professor at Leeds University Business School in the United Kingdom, younger people working from home may now face even more pressure to demonstrate that they are working. “While presenteeism for junior workers existed prior to Covid, it manifested differently: managers could see employees more easily, and junior workers had easier access to role models and cues from their work environment on how to behave.” However, Hughes claims that junior employees may be perplexed as to how to demonstrate that they are working in a changing environment. “It can be difficult in the early stages of a career to approach conversations with managers in a remote-working environment. [Younger workers] may not know how to demonstrate their availability for work, so they simply sit at their computer all day and respond to emails immediately to demonstrate to their employer that they are always available for work.”

According to Hughes, presenteeism can also manifest in workplace cultures that practise monitoring. “In those cases, junior workers are exhausted from being tracked all day, to the point where they are unable to leave their desk for lunch.”

Junior employees may also believe they are less able to work flexibly if they are the only one among their peers who is absent for a significant portion of the day. According to Hughes, tensions can arise when one person has control over their hours while others do not. Furthermore, young workers may believe that requests for flexibility will result in negative perceptions of their commitment. if all of their coworkers work standard hours.

Workers may only feel empowered to work more flexibly after climbing a rung or two on the career ladder. According to Chamorro-Premuzic, as they accumulate career capital, typically through a promotion, they gradually cross the threshold from being always available to having some autonomy over their hours.

Asynchronous work shouldn’t be a perk that comes with status – Jessica Reeder

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Where exactly that threshold lies will be different in each company – and how it’s communicated to workers will also vary. Chamorro-Premuzic adds much of it is down to an employer’s perceived value of a worker and their career status. “If an employee is seen as top talent in a tight market, then employers are more likely to make concessions and be flexible.” 

Why change isn’t easy

Reeder believes that the notion that younger employees must ‘earn’ flexible hours as a perk is flawed. “Asynchronous work should not be a status benefit,” she says. “Every employee should be given the freedom to do their best work right now.”

She believes that presenteeism burdens junior workers unfairly. “Rather than focusing on the quality of your work, it’s more stressful to make sure you’re seen to be working,” she says. “While junior employees may require additional support, training, and networking opportunities, companies monitoring their employees [via presenteeism] demonstrate a lack of trust that undermines their ability to work.”

However, closing the gap between the flexibility afforded to more senior workers and their junior colleagues is not easy. Presenteeism isn’t always a bad thing.

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