The fall and rise of presenteeism

Reginald Perrin, played by Leonard Rossiter

The 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is a study of pain. It is blighted, as many comedies of the era are, with numerous cultural traits that are thankfully no longer acceptable: sexual objectification, casual racism and a running mother-in-law gag. But in its dated way, it tells a story of a modern working man: living the life to which he was told to aspire, and hating it. The pain of presenteeism, the suffocation of routine and the lack of positive prospects ultimately lead him to fake his own death.

In 2009, a poor attempt was made to reboot the show. The central character’s growing depression was finessed and the gags updated, but the clumsy production was not engaging. At the time, I wondered whether working cultures and environments had moved sufficiently forward in three decades for the show’s themes to become unfamiliar. I now realise the reboot was just badly timed. Had the show returned now, in the hybrid-working era, the pain would again be relatable.

A tension is growing, like the one dramatised by the original Perrin, between the expectations and reality of work. People want flexibility, but employers are yet to find ways to tighten up working culture not to rely on individuals’ visibility. We’ve not been at this long enough to uncover exactly why Zoom-gloom causes headaches. I wonder if it’s our purpose reflex: small at first and then snowballing with every call. It’s only too easy for the pessimism of a worker’s internal monologue to spiral from ‘why am I even on this call’ to ‘what’s the point of it all’.

I had hunches, everyone had hunches, but now we have data. A survey of 32,000 workers from 17 countries throws up three interesting insights:

  • Two thirds of workers would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full-time. Those working from home are more inclined to say they are optimistic about the next five years, are more satisfied with employment. Contrary to assumptions, younger people are the most reluctant to return.
  • Those working from home are more likely to feel their work is suffering due to poor mental health, and are also more prone to working much longer hours.
  • Key sources of stress include length of the working day, problems with technology and concerns over job security.

What this suggests is the term ‘flexible’ working is interpreted differently, as is the need for visibility. This reminds me of a survey that was run across the staff where I worked, in which one of the questions was about ‘work-life balance’. The results were confusing. I suggested that the term was being interpreted in two ways: either to mean a relaxed, informal office atmosphere, or a measure, predicable duration of work allowing folks to stop and enjoy the other aspects of their lives. Some months later when the survey was run again, no mention was made of ‘work-life balance’, instead asking two questions specific to the workplace atmosphere and the ability to stop working. The environment score was higher than before. The duration score was much lower.

The shortcomings of the Work-as-Lifestyle model now seem obvious. During the work-from-home-wave of the pandemic, millions of Americans suddenly realized that if they wanted to mingle business and pleasure, they might as easily do it from the safety and comfort of their own living rooms. Those playground-style spaces, intended to make work a more joyous, more engaging enterprise, have had the perverse effect of staking an undue psychic claim on employees’ time: Why go home at all, they implied, when you can stay here and keep working?

Today, the spatial rhetoric of the rise-and-grind work culture seems less and less persuasive. This does not mean we need to return to the bland, fluorescent-lit sterility of an earlier epoch. But for a more efficient, healthier and happier workforce, the time may have come to ditch the bean bags.

I think about digital-era working cultures a lot. I’m starting to think there are now two behavioural ideas worth pulling apart.

  • Presenteeism was a useful idea five years ago: it articulated something many of us knew to be true about working culture. Now is the time for workers and employers to interrogate it rigorously: the challenge is more than whether someone is ‘there’ or not: it’s that how visible someone is, or is required to be, is highly contextual.
  • Flexible working is also a continuum. A famous example is that parents need to be able to juggle the fixed and flexible commitments through their days. The cost of doing so is they end up working even more, simply because the vernacular for the different flexibilities people need is yet to be worked out.

In the 1970s, the idea that by now the technology would allow us to work the way we do would have seemed like a considerable improvement, but Zoomageddon has not turned out that way. In being flexible and visible, remote and hybrid workers need to be even more present in front of their webcams: exactly the kind of thing that Perrin would take drastic action to avoid. It’s as if presenteeism had a digital transformation all of its own.

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