Why are we just realising that people have lives outside of work?

Rewind ten years; I was in my first job and I would pack my stuff up to leave at exactly 5.30 pm every day, immune to the impact of presenteeism.

“Where are you off to in such a rush?” One of the many people who worked above me (or on the same level as me) would remark. I reached the point where I would feign that if I didn’t get this very specific train out of London then I couldn’t get home for an hour.

I lived in a village growing up, but I’m pretty sure people must’ve thought I lived in the rural outback the way that I lied about the train lines.

I did this because I wanted to go home. I’d been there all day, I’d done my work diligently to ensure I actually got to leave on time and the commute was long – although not quite as long as I made it out to be.

Why, then, did I feel this sense of shame about leaving on time? That somehow I was a worse employee that those willing to give precious life hours to the company for free?

Presenteeism

I quickly learned that a thing called “presenteeism” existed in almost every job I’ve ever had in my life until the sweet, sweet point I realised I would never work for somebody else again.

Presenteeism is the art of being at your job in a physical capacity, without actually being there mentally.

I would go as far as to say 80% of people I’ve worked with fit very neatly into this box. If you’re not sure whether somebody you’re working with (or yourself) is guilty of presenteeism, here’s a little handy guide to distinguish it:

  • Their attention to detail isn’t there. They don’t seem to care about the work they produce but simply send it so they can say it’s done.
  • They appear to work long hours but don’t really seem to get any more done than any other member of staff.
  • They’re always arranging meetings and they always go on far longer than they should/have no real agenda.
  • They’re chronically busy yet, never actually seem to be doing anything.

Always being around is not the same as getting your s*** done and then getting out of there.

Yet, oh yet, this sort of behaviour is actually rewarded in companies all across the UK. The longer you are sitting in a chair the more “committed” you appear to the company. It’s one of the main reasons I vow never to work in an office again.

We’ve all seen people promoted to managerial roles simply because they’ve been there for years (and years and years) regardless of whether they actually deserve the promotion. I’ve seen some frankly shocking promotions in my time and they’re all down to presenteeism. If that person is in the building the longest then they must be the hardest worker. Wrong. 

Enter coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has got a lot to answer for. From the tragic loss of lives to loss of livelihoods, it turned our world upsidedown and is still causing havoc.

One “positive” of this experience, though, is that presenteeism is no longer the mark of a good employee. It’s impossible to always be around when you’re stuck in your house and actually have to do some work.

Now, the hard workers are getting their moment in the spotlight. Yes, they might clock off dead on 5.30 pm, they might be silent in conference calls because they just want to get it over with so they can do some actual work, but these are the people offices need.

Why, though, has it taken a global emergency for us to realise that just because somebody isn’t willing to give up their outside of work lives for their job, doesn’t mean they’re not valuable assets?

In fact, I’d argue that they’re more valuable. There’s nothing wrong with having boundaries.

Family values

It was two recent situations involving female journalists that prompted me to write this post in the first place.

They both show starkly different ways that women – particularly – are treated in the workplace and have highlighted some pretty essential work/life balance issues.

The first involved Deborah Haynes, the foreign affairs editor at Sky News, who was cut off from an interview because her son entered the room asking if he could have some biscuits.

The second involved an interviewee on BBC News, whose daughter was busily doing a bit of interior design in the back of her video. In the second video, the presenter even ended up having a chat with the girl.

The second conversation clearly came across better. In the first, the presenter shut Haynes down for even showing a glimpse of her home life – albeit by mistake – because god forbid a woman even utters the fact that she has a life outside of work.

It got me thinking – why has it taken coronavirus and seeing people juggle work and home life to make employers acknowledge that everybody has a life outside of work?

The conference call

We’re always taught to keep our home life at home and our work life at work. Yet bosses are continually shattering that balanced wall by WhatsApping their staff at weekends, calling them on a Friday night and asking them to stay later when they really need to get home.

It has taken the pandemic for people to see into the lives of others. To realise that it’s not easy to juggle a family and a job and to cut people some slack. It’s not uncommon now for somebody to mute themselves on a conference call because their child is screaming in the background, yet it was frowned upon before if somebody prioritised their home life over their work.

The two can run together concurrently.

The take away

I have a lot of hopes for the future of the workplace in a post-COVID world. One of my main ones, though, is that women feel they can have it all. Women who want children should not have to keep putting their plans further and further back in order to facilitate the needs of their company.

Yes, I appreciate children aren’t on the agenda for every person, but prioritising your life should be. Post-coronavirus, hard work should be enough. Let people take personal calls and leave the office for life stuff if they’re doing their work while they’re there.

I’d argue that this would make for a more productive workforce at work, but also a happier life at home. It’s win-win and it’s something I really hope catches on when we all go back to the “real world”.

Interested in hearing more about my work/life balance? Here’s how I plan to structure my maternity leave.

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