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Opinion Why are employers rewarding long hours in the office above all else?

Some companies believe they’re getting more out of staff who are present in the office for long hours – but many employees just stay late because it looks good.

PRESENTEEISM – IT USUALLY means turning up at work in spite of illness, but it also refers to the practice of working long hours when there’s no real need to do so. Staying in the office because everyone else does. And everyone else is staying there, because, well, everyone else does.

Why are employers rewarding presence in the office above all else? It is because it’s more instantly measurable than any actual results? Is it because companies genuinely believe they’re getting more out of staff who are present in the office for long hours? Is it because it ticks a box – employees are here, so we must be doing something right – who cares if they’re spending half the day on Facebook?

Or is it just a habit, leading to a vicious circle – a manager who stays late because she feels it’s her responsibility to turn out the light, and a team staying late because their manager does?

I used to stay late. Some days I stayed because I was busy. Other days I stayed… well, just because. Because it wasn’t six o’clock yet, because some of the team were still there, because I wasn’t really rushing anywhere, because it was a habit and I didn’t have a strong reason to break it.

I’ve worked hundreds of hours unnecessarily

For me, the change was having children – I didn’t have the option to stay late anymore. So on busy days, I’d log back in at home, and on quiet days, I’d enjoy the quiet. And my work still got done. Which leads me to question the hundreds of hours I’ve worked unnecessarily over the years – I could have invented the next multi-million-dollar app if I’d used my time more wisely (and if I knew how to invent apps).

Although I didn’t lead by example back in the day, I did actively encourage people to leave the office when their work was done (possibly from the self-interested angle that I’d get out sooner if I convinced everyone else to leave). And while this is the culture in many workplaces, there are many more where staying late is expected, regardless of whether or not there is any critical work to be done. An attitude of “You can’t expect to progress if you don’t put in the hours” – even if those extra hours function mostly to tick a box. And particularly during the recession, who was going to argue?

Of course, it is arguable that to get ahead, there’s no way around it – you have to put in the time. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo famously worked as many as 130 hours some weeks, while Twitter founder Jack Dorsey spent 16 to 20 hours a day at work at one point. For the rest of us, who are not expecting to take over the world, but nevertheless want to be successful in our chosen careers, shouldn’t working smarter rather than longer be what matters?

What’s really important – hours or output?

Richard Branson recently announced that Virgin staff could take unlimited leave, as long as their absence wouldn’t damage the business. The leave won’t be tracked – employers are trusted to take it when they need it, without abusing it. Whether this is a headline grabbing initiative that lacks substance or a genuine attempt at a progressive means to increase productivity, it does raise the topic of presenteeism, and the question of what’s really important in the workplace – hours or output.

In his TED talk on the subject of motivation, Dan Pink refers to the notion of Results Only Work Environment:

In a ROWE people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them … What happens? Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up.

The idea is that it doesn’t matter where you are or for how long – if you achieve results, your job is done.

Many employers are afraid of the idea

Admittedly, there are many roles and industries in which this wouldn’t work. You can’t teach a class or nurse a ward full of patients from your kitchen table. And even in the office-based world, there are jobs that couldn’t be done on a ROWE basis.

But so many could, and so many employers are afraid of the idea. The assumption that working from home means sitting on the couch watching Jeremy Kyle. The idea that leaving early and logging back in from home later is somehow less efficient than sitting in the office until an appointed time, or until the boss puts on her coat.

There are certainly individual people for whom a ROWE wouldn’t work and many would freely admit that they need the discipline of an office environment in order to work productively. But there is no argument for encouraging employees to stay in the office for needless additional hours. And in an age where taking part in a conference call by mobile phone while getting tea ready for the kids is easily done, then why not take advantage of that?

Smart employers measure results, not hours; smart employers recognise productivity over presence. And very smart employers give their staff unlimited, unrecorded time off, then sit back and watch while they work harder and longer than ever.

Andrea Mara has three small kids, one tall husband and one office job. She writes at about being a parent, being a mother working outside the home, and being a woman in the workplace. She’s just trying to keep her balance. Follow her tweets@office_mum or on Facebook.

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