The presenteeism pivot: redefining workplace presence for flexible work
As workplaces become more flexible and our ability to work from anywhere more commonplace, the traditional idea of workplace ‘presence’ is shifting
Before Covid-19, there was a commonly held understanding of what it meant to be ‘present’ at work – it typically meant daily attendance at a particular office building. The term presenteeism was coined to describe the phenomenon at its extreme, and most work activities were based on co-location in a physical space. In fact, most forms of career advancement were generally considered to depend entirely on physical presence in the workplace for a regimented period of time.
However, since Covid-19 accelerated pre-existing trends towards more remote and flexible working, the concept of being ‘present’ at work has shifted. The pandemic eroded the concept that presence relies on physical co-location because for the past 18 months employees have had no choice but to be ‘digitally present’ as they work more flexibly across a range of settings, including their home.
The flexibility of work has not only impacted the space we work in, but also time. ‘Presence’ was once synonymous only with synchronous work, in which people work together on things at the same time (usually at a single office location). Now it is also an aspect of asynchronous work, in which work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone and the cloud is the key location.
The workplace of the future
It is increasingly becoming clear that this redefinition of presence asks new questions of the office building. It can no longer be a dumb and unresponsive container for work activities carried out synchronously by a workforce that is physically attendant on a consistent and unchanging basis. In the post-pandemic era; it must become a smart and connected entity that can curate and manage the interactions of an office population whose presence will fluctuate with demand and reflect more unpredictable working patterns.
The pandemic has raised several debates in corporate real estate teams about the purpose of the office. While there is no single answer to this conundrum, the universal response in that the corporate office building will remain of critical importance as a hub to build culture and generate social capital, to seed innovation and train staff. But it will no longer be the only channel for work and it will no longer require daily attendance. In what some commentators have described as ‘omni-channel working,’ employees will work in the future via multiple channels. The task of the office building will be to become a ‘destination of choice’ that brings the right people together at the right time with the right tools for certain face-to-face activities.
The future-ready connected office
If ‘presence’ in the workplace is no longer a one-dimensional idea, but an increasingly multi-faceted one, then a stable, effective and unobtrusive digital infrastructure is needed to underpin all the emerging considerations around hybrid ways of working. Software and systems architecture need to seamlessly plug into the physical workplace and connect to other systems to work effectively and seamlessly to create the most flexible and collaborative work experience. Smart systems should be modular and scalable, so that companies can test the principles of the connected office at a basic level and be future-ready to scale up. In this context, the use of LED connected lighting with embedded IoT (Internet of Things) sensors makes a lot of sense from an operational and design perspective.
Academic research in the field of environmental psychology suggests that the continuing endurance of the office building is because it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively. There are fundamental psychological reasons why we need to be physically co-located to support creativity and innovation. As researchers Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel predicted in the Harvard Business Review in 2016: ‘Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries. And that is why the quality of the physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever.’
After the pandemic, the quality of the physical workplace will increasingly include smart systems and software to connect the infrastructure as part of a collaborative ecosystem. A shift in what it means to be present at work has seen to that.