The Future of Work: Managing absence in a hybrid working world

It is generally accepted that hybrid working is here to stay, along with all the challenges that managing a remote workforce presents. Here we focus on how an employer can effectively manage absence when employees are working remotely.

As we discussed in our previous article, The Future of Work: Performance management in a hybrid working world (, working remotely can take away an employer’s visibility of who is physically working each day, when they are working and what work they are doing. This presents difficulties, not just for managing performance, but also for monitoring attendance levels. Teams are no longer together in the office each day and therefore someone taking a day of absence is not as noticeable.

Potential problem areas

Sickness absence can be a difficult process to manage generally, let alone in a hybrid-working world. Pre-pandemic, people would attend the office with minor coughs and colds unless truly unwell, at which point they would remain at home, taking time to recover. If an employee was unwell and unable to work, the process would typically be to call their employer’s sick line to let them know that they would not be coming in that day.

Where employees now have the ability to work from home, there is a tendency to remain at home at the first sign of a sniffle and continue to log on each day no matter how serious it gets. Whilst in some ways this is a positive, helping to prevent the spread of germs within the workplace, the reluctancy to take a sick day may be counter intuitive resulting in a prolonged illness and fuelling the culture of ‘presenteeism’. Employees may well be worried about what their manager would think if they called in sick, when they could have been at home all day working in any event.

However, working from home should not be a substitute for a sick day and if an employee is not able to perform to their usual standard, they should arguably not be working at all. In the long run, it could cost the employer more in lack of productivity and correcting mistakes over the course of several days, than if the employee had just taken a sick day in the first place to fully recover. It can be detrimental for the employee, since trying to maintain the usual levels of productivity when feeling ill is unrealistic and can contribute to increased stress levels. If this is not monitored correctly, it can lead to long-term sickness or resignations.

Equally, managers may find employees using sickness as a reason not to attend the office, particularly where the employer has mandated office attendance on certain days of the week.

The fact that remote workers are not as visible can cause uncertainty within a team as to who is available and working and who is absent. If a manager, with no knowledge of a staff absence, sends an urgent task to their remote employee via email, they may at best receive an unexpected ‘out of office’ response and at worst, the tasks remain uncompleted.

As with managing performance, the key to effective absence management will be to clearly set out expectations around attendance, and the process which will be followed when an employee falls sick. Managers should ensure they take a consistent approach to staff absences, follow correct company procedure regarding absence reporting and insist employees do the same, regardless of whether the employee was intending to work in the office or remotely.

Practical hints and tips

  • Clearly set out expectations around the process to be followed when an employee falls sick. This may require reviewing current absence management policies to ensure they are appropriate in a hybrid working world.
  • Training managers is key so that they understand the company’s sickness policy and how to implement it in a consistent way.
  • Managers should lead by example, taking time off when they are unwell and be transparent with their team. They should remain offline and respect the sickness policy to send a clear tone to the team that it is ok to do the same when necessary.
  • In some situations, it may be appropriate to allow an employee to work from home when they have a minor illness like a cold but are well enough to continue working. However, managers should feel equipped to have open conversations with employees who appear and sound unwell but are continuing to work.
  • Equally, hybrid working does not mean that issues with absence cannot be addressed in line with the company’s policy.
  • Remote working makes it much harder to monitor employee wellbeing. Employers should be mindful not to promote that ‘presenteeism’ culture and should encourage adherence to their sickness and absence policy to promote a healthy and productive workforce. In turn, employees need to take some responsibility for their own health and recognise when what is commonly known as ‘powering on through’ is harmful to their health. Regular conversations between managers and their team will help managers to identify when an individual struggling.
  • More and more employers are offering their workforce additional wellbeing days in an attempt to combat the new pressures of remote working, or where mental health is suffering. These wellbeing days are in additional to annual leave entitlements. Whilst this could be a step in the right direction to promote staff wellbeing, it does need to be managed carefully to ensure that all employees truly do get a chance to switch off. Employers shouldn’t rely on wellbeing days as fixing all mental health and wellbeing problems in the workplace as they do not go to the root of the cause but they may prove a useful aid if an employee is not feeling 100% mentally well and needs a day to reset.

In summary, managing absence in a remote world shouldn’t be tricky for employers if the right processes, training and examples are set in the workplace for employees and managers to follow.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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