The average knowledge worker as surveyed by Qatalog and GitLab spends an additional 67 minutes a day working to make it clear to the rest of the organization that they are on the clock. This stat in isolation is a pretty damning indictment of remote work, so let’s zoom out a little, and put it into perspective.
Despite what you may have read, presenteeism isn’t a new concept. Since the dawn of the office job, workers have found ways to mimic the external markers of productivity. An office worker may pull up a spreadsheet on one monitor while scrolling Twitter on another, while a remote worker may send off a flurry of emails or periodically tap their laptop’s touchpad to make sure their Slack status continues to display a bright green circle.
The findings around digital presenteeism have been treated as a bit of a “gotcha” moment against the proponents of remote work, instead of what they really are: a shocking example of how dated in-office behaviors can carry over into remote environments.
What actually needs to change is the surveillance that tracks vanity productivity metrics, such as hours worked, and the pressure that out-of-touch managers and higher-ups put on their employees to appear busy.
This behavior is at best dated and out of touch, and at worst toxic. In recent research, McKinsey noted that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Studies reported the voluntary quit rate in the United States at the end of May 2022 was 25% higher than it was before the pandemic began.
In a time when employees feel less attached to their workplaces and unafraid to resign, organizations can’t risk losing top talent due to burnout or a lack of fulfillment. It’s in everyone’s best interest to stop worrying about presenteeism, and focus instead on results.
You might ask: If we’re not measuring time, then what are we measuring? The answer is simple: results. But measuring results can be hard, which is why most companies measure keystrokes or presence at the office instead.
However, as teams become increasingly scattered due to remote work, it’s critical that these measurements are transparent, time-bound, and visible throughout organizations. This keeps teams accountable within the organization, and with customers and investors. Although every team will use a different set of metrics, it’s worthwhile to create a single source of truth to help align team members on an organization’s commitment to results.
For a customer-facing role, consider identifying your customer’s OKRs and KPIs, and how your product or service can help. At GitLab, our engineers measure a variety of end-user performance metrics, while our contributor success team measures the number of contributions and the success of our contributor program. The product itself has its own public-facing measurement system to measure its maturity, so all of our users understand where we started, and what they can expect in the future.
And leaders are not exempt from the need for transparency, which is why my OKRs are developed with my team and tracked publicly.
In order to get these results, employees need to be empowered to make decisions efficiently and work with a bias for action. This will likely involve a vast, top-down mindset shift, in addition to adopting a new framework for decision-making. It’ll look different for every organization and every industry, but the basic structure involves removing hurdles and red tape and ultimately giving team members the power to make and act on decisions.
Systematize sharing information
There are four main principles to this decision-making framework. The first is that the decisions must be informed. This requires organizations implementing systems of documentation that give employees access to the information required to form and incubate ideas. Systematized documentation is critical for maintaining transparency across the organization. This can mean giving team members visibility into leadership OKRs and business goals, maintaining detailed notes about product roadmaps and initiatives, or a regularly updated company handbook that serves as a single source of truth for protocols and policies.
Empower teams to move faster
The next two principles go hand-in-hand: Team members should feel empowered to make fast decisions in greater quantities. As companies scale, it becomes harder to maintain that scrappy, quick decision-making that made them successful in the first place. To accomplish this, determine what processes within your organization serve as “red tape” and either cut or streamline them. Whether that’s company politics, an understood policy of working in silos until projects are complete, or a lack of ownership on projects, identify a few common roadblocks and think through how you can remove them to encourage faster decision-making.
Once you’ve removed some of the hurdles that prevent team members from making decisions, start encouraging frequent decisions by cultivating a focus on iteration. How you measure a decision is entirely up to you. Build in healthy constraints that keep team members focused on the end goal but free to explore new ways to accomplish those goals. Perhaps teams are bogged down by waiting for full consensus—can you streamline who is involved in the decision-making process? Maybe teams don’t have a workflow that allows them to collaborate while remaining flexible, in which case you can implement asynchronous tooling and guidelines.
Finally, consider the framework you have in place for executing on decisions. How long does it usually take to go from a final decision to a result/output? All team members should be encouraged to maintain a bias for action, meaning that they default to getting things done, whether or not there’s full team consensus. While team members should be encouraged to deliver thoughtful work, the first pass will likely be imperfect. Giving teams agency to operate with a low level of shame and developing a tolerance for mistakes gives workers more ownership over their projects, leading to increased productivity and fulfillment.
Time is not an infinite resource; ideas are. Rather than spend time monitoring employees’ engagement on Slack and emails to ensure they’re really working, let’s start focusing instead on results and engagement. Productivity is about more than the hours we spend working; it’s about empowering every individual to make decisions and run with their ideas.
We have an opportunity now to reconsider how we think about work, productivity, and how we spend our weeks. Rather than celebrate the working culture that pressures employees to start working at 5 a.m. and sign off after dark, let’s build a culture that empowers employees. By focusing efforts on how work happens instead of where people are, leaders can build more durable businesses with more fulfilled team members.
Sid Sijbrandij is the cofounder and CEO of GitLab Inc.