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Boreout Syndrome and 5 Pitfalls of Onsite Work

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

A bored-out worker may just be as bad as a burned-out worker.

A bored-out worker may just be as bad as a burned-out worker.

What Is Boreout Syndrome?

Going to work for the sake of being “at” work—this used to be one way of ensuring you’d be seen by your superiors and colleagues, thereby increasing your chances of getting noticed.

Feigning busyness or dressing up your workday as if there was so much work to be done (when the truth was, there was hardly anything to do)—this is classic boreout syndrome, an unfortunate yet common occurrence when working from the office. As there are many reasons to regularly meet up with colleagues at shared professional territory, so are also many good reasons not to.

Boreout is “the experience that the work doesn’t really have any purpose, that there’s no point,” says Lotta Harju, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at EM Lyon Business School.

What happens often, Harju says, is that workers will simply show up at work and spend time cyber-loafing—shopping online, passively engaging in social media, chatting with colleagues, or planning other activities. These aren’t necessarily lazy tendencies but are instead coping mechanisms.

What are the unseen dangers of spending the entire week at the office?

5 Pitfalls of Onsite Work

There are many disadvantages of onsite work, and here are five such pitfalls.

  1. Presenteeism or "Looking Busy"
  2. Performance Anxiety
  3. No Boundaries
  4. Difficulty in Doing Focused Work
  5. The Illusion of Productivity

1. Presenteeism or "Looking Busy"

Ever been annoyed that some of your co-workers get praised or even promoted simply because they tend to show up a lot? Granted, simply being present in times of crisis counts for something—but there’s a difference between “being seen working” and “working to be seen.” The latter seeks to impress and might be the core reason behind presenteeism.

Presenteeism is usually meant as the opposite of absenteeism, meaning some workers tend to report to work despite being sick. But it’s also applicable when it comes to workers who tend to show up for the sake of showing up. Trying to look busy so as not to be labeled a loafer, making clerical work appear more complicated and fussier than it actually is, setting up meetings with no definite agendas—these are all telltale signs of presenteeism in the workplace.

The reality of some jobs is that workload tends to fluctuate, depending on the needs of the business. Some jobs don’t entail a fixed or recurring work routine that you can perfect, given some time on the job.

There will be days where it feels like there’s way too much to do, and a regular workday just can’t tick off even half of the tasks that need to get done, and there will also be days where you find it hard enough to list down a set of priorities just because there’s too little to do.

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2. Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is another pitfall of onsite work, which is why some jobs might just be better off fully remote or with a day or two per week carved off for physical engagement.

A 2020 article from PeopleHR says that in the workplace, “performance anxiety occurs when employees are more concerned with the way their peers or superiors are judging them, than they are with the actual job they are trying to complete.”

Completely working onsite just might minimize the real talent, hence the corresponding output, of those who are very good at their jobs when they feel like nobody’s judging them.

3. No Boundaries

The open office floor plan that started gaining popularity in the 1940s especially because of its cost-saving aspect has now essentially become the modern white-collar workplace. Co-working spaces that have sprung up in the last decade may have been ambitious and imaginative enough to show us that there are less mundane work environments out there, but it’s safe to say that the open office is here to stay.

Open offices are great for worker engagement, collaboration, serendipitous meetings—but the tradeoff stares you straight at the face, which is a lack of boundaries. The modern office usually puts up meeting rooms, conference rooms, and sound-proof spaces to take important calls, all of which to provide workers with boundaries in times of necessity. But boundaries in the modern office are the exception rather than the rule, with having one’s own office being considered a privilege gained by top company executives or high-ranking officials.

Writing for Slate, Alison Green, who created the work advice site Ask a Manager said in 2019 that the problem with open offices “aren’t limited to the noise and inability to focus.” She says that open offices “makes it extremely difficult to have the sort of private conversations that are often necessary at work.”

4. Difficulty in Doing Focused Work

In Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, he describes deep work as professional activities “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” And in contrast, shallow work is characterized by “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted,” which typically don’t add much value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Creative types—designers, developers, writers, etc.—and even analytical types—consultants, engineers, strategists—all need some focused time to do the “deep work” part of their jobs. While for the most part, they need to work in teams and collaborate, they also need to carve out time to produce value-adding work; work that their studies, skills, and experience enable them to accomplish.

5. The Illusion of Productivity

Last but not least among the pitfalls of onsite work is the illusion of productivity. There’s a misconception that more time means more output—a false logic derived from the industrial age, where factories and processing plants drove the economy. In the age of knowledge work, which has been where we are for the better part of the last two decades, more time doesn’t always translate to more productivity. Organizations fall into the trap of the illusion of productivity, which can stifle creativity and innovation. An occupied mind hardly has any time to get creative.

With onsite work (as compared to remote work), there is a sense that more things are getting done, everyone is moving fast and all around, people are engaging, teams are freely collaborating—all of which might lead to the conclusion that the workplace is being more productive.

The latter is not always the case, and so organizations should shift their mindset from measuring effort to measuring actual results. The 80-20 Rule, or the Pareto Principle, asserts that 80% of outputs result from 20% of inputs for any given event. This may not always be the case for all types of work—and may usually not end up being numerically accurate—but the point of this principle is prioritization and being strategic when it comes to effort.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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