The rise of flexible work has been heralded as one of the biggest shifts of the pandemic. Newly empowered employees – knowledge workers, in particular – can now decide when they work, the narrative goes, fitting their work timetable around their personal lives rather than being in front of their computers for the regimented nine-to-five.
However, some recent data suggests this workday flexibility may be largely reserved for managers. According to a July 2022 study of 2,000 knowledge workers in the US and UK, conducted by digital work hub Qatalog and software-development platform Gitlab, 74% of executives are able to work according to their own timetable – compared to just 24% of junior staff. This suggests that there may be a stark contrast between those who can control their hours and work asynchronously versus those who cannot.
These findings are curious, given companies benefit from increased workforce productivity and wellness when flexibility is an option for workers of all levels. Experts link this divide to the presenteeism that’s 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
In some ways, presenteeism is a relic of the industrial era; factory bosses needed workers on site and assessed their productivity by tangible output. As office culture grew, and output became less identifiable, longer hours spent at the computer came to symbolise productivity.
“We clung on to presenteeism from the old days, even though it was no longer a suitable approach for either evaluating performance or motivating employees," explains Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London. Managers, he says, became accustomed to assessing workers’ productivity based on appearances, while workers learned to focus on impression management – looking busy and being constantly available for tasks.
A junior worker has to earn status, seniority and credibility – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
However, this pressure to ‘perform’ work has always skewed towards junior workers. “While senior workers have built their career capital, there is greater onus on younger employees to stand out and prove themselves,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Junior workers are more likely to focus on ‘making it’ in their careers and developing a positive reputation, he says; and this often means conforming to perceptions of what a ‘good’ junior worker should do.
Chamorro-Premuzic believes presenteeism is largely a conversation around trust; workers need to earn the confidence of more senior colleagues before being entrusted with more autonomy. “Humans are hierarchical by nature: if you’re a newcomer you have to start from the bottom,” he says. “This won’t change, so a junior worker has to earn status, seniority and credibility. Like a sort of initiation, everyone is put through the same test.”
Jessica Reeder, senior strategy and operations manager at Gitlab, based in New York City, agrees there’s a relationship between trust and presenteeism, saying greater presenteeism pressure is placed on lower-level roles. “The assumption is the executives are invested in the company and no one needs to check if they’re working, but the recent graduate doesn’t necessarily have the same motivation or passion about 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.
In many company cultures, juniors have to prove they can be trusted before gaining greater autonomy (Credit: Getty)
The growing flexibility gap
In the digital age, presenteeism has moved online; workers have swapped late-night stints in the office for near-constant availability on email, Zoom and messaging platforms. But the rise in remote working triggered by the pandemic has seemingly created an even bigger trust divide between managers, who can craft their work schedules, versus junior employees who often have to constantly show availability.
Helen Hughes, associate professor at Leeds University Business School, UK, says younger people working from home may now face even greater pressure to show they’re working. “While presenteeism certainly existed before Covid for junior workers, it manifested differently: managers could see employees more readily, and junior workers had easier access to role models and cues from their work environment on how to behave.”
But now, Hughes says, junior employees can be left confused as to how to show they’re working in a changed landscape. “In the early days of a career, it can be harder to approach conversations with managers in a remote-working environment. [Younger workers] may not know how to prove they’re busy, so they just sit at their computer all day and instantly respond to emails to show their employer they’re always available for work.”
Presenteeism can also manifest in working cultures that practise monitoring, says Hughes. “In those cases, junior workers feel drained from being tracked all day, to the point they feel they can’t go for lunch or leave their desk.”
Junior workers may also feel they’re less able to work flexibly if they’re the only one among their peers seen to be absent during a chunk of the day. Tensions can emerge if one person gets a choice over their hours and others don't, notes Hughes. Plus, young workers may feel that requests for flexibility could lead to negative perceptions of their commitment, if all their colleagues are working standard hours.
Workers may only feel empowered to work more flexibly once they have moved up a rung or two on the career ladder. As they accrue career capital, typically through a promotion, they gradually pass the threshold from being always available to having some autonomy over their hours, Chamorro-Premuzic says.
Asynchronous work shouldn’t be a perk that comes with status – Jessica Reeder
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 the idea that younger employees have to ‘earn’ flexible hours as a privilege is flawed. “Asynchronous work shouldn’t be a perk that comes with status,” she says. “Every employee should be empowered to work at their best right now.”
She believes that presenteeism pressures unfairly burden junior workers. “Rather than focusing on the quality of your work, making sure you’re seen to be working is stressful,” she says. “Junior employees might need more support, training and networking opportunities, but companies monitoring their employees [through presenteeism] shows a lack of trust that undermines their ability to work.”
However, narrowing the divide between the flexibility afforded to more senior workers compared to their junior colleagues isn’t simple. In some cases, presenteeism isn’t necessarily being thrust upon junior employees. Rather, workers can perpetuate presenteeism to reach career goals. “There can be a reputational-building aspect to presenteeism: a young worker feeling they have something to prove and make themselves more available to take on more tasks,” says Hughes.
Plus, the difference between senior and junior roles typically feeds into the flexibility. Hughes believes that more experienced employees will always be more likely to dictate their timetables than relative career newcomers. “Managers have greater decision-making power irrespective of their hours. They’re more established, have already earned their reputation and need less supervision and monitoring.”
Presenteeism is therefore a systemic issue, entrenched in working hierarchies, and amplified in hybrid and remote-work patterns. Without quality-based measures in place, the default way of tracking employee output is by measuring the time they spend at work. And the nature of the career ladder means there is always likely to be greater scrutiny of younger workers.
Yet even if narrowing the ‘flexibility divide’ between workers of different ranks feels like a tall order, Hughes believes employers can start to tackle presenteeism among junior workers by setting clear expectations around working hours. “It may be that lower-level employees have less control over their schedules,” she says, “but being transparent around boundaries and how work outcomes are measured can help reduce the pressure of always showing availability.”