shutterstock_140142550A ubiquitous culture of presenteeism is damaging productivity in UK offices, according to new research by fit out and refurbishment specialist Overbury. This is despite 77% of office workers having more flexible working options open to them than five years ago and expecting this trend to continue into 2014.

Four in five (80%) claim those who spend more hours in the office are thought by bosses to be working harder, while two thirds (66%) say being seen to work late increases an employee’s chance of promotion. More than two thirds (67%) of those who sometimes work from home admit to sending emails early in the morning to stop colleagues thinking they’re having a lie-in.

Presenteesim is felt more by the young; with more than four in five (85%) of 18-24 year olds stating it exists in their workplace, compared to two thirds (66%) of those over 54. Those at the top are also more likely to feel the brunt of this culture, with senior managers three times more likely to have received a negative comment about working out of the office (18% compared to 5% of employees at supervisory level).

Presenteeism by industry
Ranking Industry Percentage of office workers reporting a “culture of presenteeism”
1 Creative industries 82%
2 Professional services 77%
2 Financial services 77%
4 Retail 76%
5 Healthcare & pharma 69%
6 Manufacturing 64%
7 Utilities 58%
7 Technology 58%

Multiple pressure points

Chris Booth, Overbury managing director said: “Our research found presenteeism comes from a complex mix of factors including demands from management, peer pressure and a self-inflicted concern over how others see us. This complexity may be at the heart of why presenteeism is proving so hard to shift.”

The study found peer pressure is a significant, if not all-pervasive, factor with two in five workers (42%) saying their respect for a colleague would be diminished if they spent fewer hours in the office. While half of senior managers (50%) said they would be less inclined to recommend someone for promotion if the individual spent less time in the office.

Booth comments: “Despite these external pressures, only one in ten people have actually received a negative comment about working from home or not being in the office enough – indicating the fear of being judged for flexible working may be more common than the judgement itself.”

Myth of double standards

The study also compared attitudes and behaviours around flexible working amongst parents and non-parents. There is a widespread perception of double standards; with more than two in three employees (67%) claiming flexible working is only considered for parents at their work, with different rules for everyone else. Yet in reality there is no difference in access to flexible working amongst parents and non-parents, with exactly the same proportion of each being allowed to work from home or out of the office (66%).

Three in four parents (75%) claimed having children increased their productivity at work because time became more precious and they got better at doing tasks at speed. Parents were also slightly more likely to start work before arriving in the office (50% do this everyday or often, compared to 41% of non-parents).

Booth adds: “Businesses could learn a lot from parents in how to increase productivity while being flexible to employees’ lives, but they must first dispel the myth that flexible working is just for those with young children.”

Poor training and bad design

The research also found employers are missing an opportunity to make remote working productive. Fewer than one in ten (9%) office workers have access to remote collaboration tools, while hardly any more (12%) have video conference facilities.

Only one in seven (15%) office workers have received training on remote working for managing people who work out of the office.

The research also found office design lacking, with almost nine in ten (88%) saying there are no private spaces to enable them to concentrate in the office. While only a third (34%) have rooms designed to aid particular working activities.

Booth adds: “On the one hand people are under pressure to be physically present in the workplace, but the offices they find themselves in are not conducive to concentration or creativity. More businesses need to realise that great ideas don’t arise from sitting at the same desk all day. Instead we must enable people to work in different environments depending on what they’re doing at any one time to push productivity through the roof.”