How COVID and Remote Work is Lengthening the Work Day
An executive gets unapologetic messages from colleagues and her boss on nights and weekends, including a notably demanding one on a statutory holiday. A web designer whose bedroom doubles as an office has to set an alarm to remind himself to eat during his non-stop workday. A female tech worker with four children works 13-hour days while attempting to juggle her parenting duties and her job.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have shifted to remote and virtual work, which has impacted families and particularly women the most. The boundary between work and home life is rapidly disappearing.
One negative impact has been the length of the working day. Prior to the pandemic, there have been significant initiatives to reduce the length of the working day and working week. With the pandemic, we are heading in the opposite direction.
The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research commissioned researchers from Harvard Business School and NYU Stern School of Business, who used anonymized email data to analyze the work habits of more than 3 million people spread out among 16 cities that were locked down during the early stages of the pandemic. Their conclusion: People worked an average of 48.5 minutes more per day, compared with the pre-virus period.
People are working longer hours in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic and the mass increase in remote work. New data from NordVPN Teams show not only a massive spike in business VPN usage but also people working on average two hours longer than usual.
According to the study, the U.S. increased its average workday by almost 40%, adding an extra three hours, the largest jump worldwide. The UK, France, Canada, and Spain are seeing a two-hour increase.
Through an analysis of the work cadence data of 40,000 paid organization accounts, the Microsoft-owned company revealed in a report that developers on the GitHub platform are working an additional 30 to 60 minutes per day since March, 2020. The report also revealed that more developers have extended their work hours into the weekend during the pandemic. They are also not merely stretching their workdays longer while performing the same volume of work, but rather, users are consistently increasing their work volume compared to the same period last year.
Now, well into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.
With many living a few steps from their offices, America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights. The 9-to-5 workday, or any semblance of it, seems like a relic of a bygone era. Long gone are the regretful formalities for calling or emailing at inappropriate times. Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting. Employees are also logging back in late at night. Surfshark, another VPN provider, has seen spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. that were not present before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Huda Idrees, the CEO of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms her 15 employees are working on average, 12-hour days up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”
The lengthening workday began even before lockdowns were officially announced, the researchers found — an indication that workers and companies were scrambling to adjust in preparation of formal work-from-home orders.
The findings add to other evidence that working from home — while protecting employees from exposure to COVID-19 — also points to new sources of stress. Many employers have implemented productivity-tracking systems for newly remote workers. Even in the absence of formal metrics, employees may feel pressured to compensate for a lack of face-to-face time with their colleagues by being more visible online.
“It doesn’t seem like telecommuting is used by people to replace work hours. When people telecommute, they use it mostly to do more work,” according to Mary Noonan, a sociologist at the University of Iowa. A 2017 study she co-authored comparing onsite and remote workers at the same company found that telecommuters do three more hours of unpaid work a week than their on-site colleagues.
During lockdowns, workers also end up sending more emails and holding more meetings, the researchers found. However, the meetings were shorter than usual, with the result that total time spent in meetings actually decreased during the lockdown.
Since the lockdowns ended, some cities have returned to more typical work patterns. Workdays in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have since returned to pre- lockdown lengths, according to the paper. But employees in cities such as New York and San Francisco in the U.S. and London, Madrid and Rome in Europe are still working longer than typical hours.
Many businesses have announced plans to extend the work-from-home regime. Twitter says its 5,000 employees can work remotely “forever,” while Facebook expects that fully half its workforce will work from home within a few years. A recent Gartner survey found that more than 80% of company leaders plan to have their staff work remotely at least part-time.
But as the NBER paper concludes, working from home can be a double-edged sword. “On one hand, the flexibility to choose one’s working hours to accommodate household demands may empower employees by affording them some freedom over their own schedule, and on the other hand, working from home can extend workers’ working day, which creates its own stresses.”
One big problem is there’s no escape. With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, people feel like they have no legitimate excuse for being unavailable. One JPMorgan employee interrupted his morning shower to join an impromptu meeting after seeing a message from a colleague on his Apple Watch. By the time he dried off and logged back on, he was five minutes late.
Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect. Having an extra room helps, but not much, said one financial compliance employee of a manufacturing company. His workspace is right next to the living room. “You walk by 20 times a day” he said. “Every time you pass there, you’re not escaping work.”
By early April, about 45% of workers said they were burned out, according to a survey of 1,001 U.S. employees by Eagle Hill Consulting. Almost half attributed the mental toll to an increased workload, the challenge of juggling personal and professional life, and a lack of communication and support from their employer. Maintaining employee morale has proved difficult, said two-thirds of human resources professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management earlier this month.
Those crammed into smaller quarters are also at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure than colleagues with extra rooms, according to preliminary research by Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University.
Parents with kids at home are stretched particularly thin, as they squeeze work in between child-care duties, which now include virtual learning sessions. In two-thirds of married couples with children in the U.S., both parents work, leaving nobody available to watch the children.
How COVID-19 Has Impacted Families and Particularly Women
But it isn’t really that everyone in the COVID-19 economy can’t have a child and a job at the same time. It’s that mothers, specifically, cannot. It is mothers, not fathers, who have historically shouldered the vast majority of the childcare burden, and continue to do so during the pandemic, according to one New York Timessurvey; it is women, not men, for whom the Secretary General of the United Nations warned, “across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated.” It is mothers, not fathers, who have historically bowed out of the workforce when their domestic responsibilities increase, thus making it more difficult for them to ever return.
It is women, not men, who will take pay cuts and buyouts, who will go from full-time to part-time to no-time. In many respects, this is an unprecedented historical moment, says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Although mothers have been expected to juggle domestic labor with work for much of history, they were reliant on their communities — for instance, grandparents or neighbors — to assume some of the childcare when they were too busy. “There was this integrated community of work, education, instruction, and exchange that was very hard work, but it wasn’t this isolated work,” she says. While weepy, coronavirus- themed Facebook commercials may try to convince us that social media and virtual interaction can supplant the loss of this network, “they don’t have the actual physical coordination and the interdependence that parents really need,” she says. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in an era where parents, particularly women, are expected to achieve a perfect balance between work and childcare, and for basically the first time in human history, they’re expected to do it on their own.
Unsurprisingly, many experts have predicted that this doesn’t bode super well for women. A report from the United Nations has warned that the precarious economic situation could “roll back” many of the advances feminism has made over the past few decades, with layoffs hitting women disproportionately or forcing women with small children to bow out of the workforce. “We could have an entire generation of women who are hurt [economically],” Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, told theNew York Times.
It’s worth noting, that compared to many low-income women and women in service industries, middle-class working mothers who have the luxury of working from home are in a position of extraordinary privilege. While there is little hard data on the subject, low- income mothers will also be hardest hit by the impact of the pandemic: “If you’re making less money in a relationship and men make more, what’s happening is women are staying at home to cover for childcare and these are often low-income women,” says Ellen Kossek, a professor of management at Purdue University Krannert School of Management and author of a forthcoming study on the subject.
Virtually any working mother has a horror story about feeling pushed out of the workplace pre-COVID-19, even those who come from a relative position of privilege, because the demands of the American workplace are totally antithetical to the demands of the home.
Over the past few months in the U.S., policy makers have engineered what they no doubt view as ingenious ways to return children back to school, all of which have been met with widespread ire from parents on social media. Employers have also done their part in instituting policies that are wildly ignorant of, if not downright hostile to, the lived realities of working parents, with Florida State University instituting a policy for remote employees banning them from caring for children while working. “[FSU IS] acting like they gave us this privilege to watch our children while we worked — when that’s literally what I had to do,” one professor complained. (FSU walked back on this policy following backlash on social media, sending an email to staff saying, “We want to be clear — our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”)
That the needs of parents were not taken into account during the development of these policies is apparent; that the needs of working mothers in particular were not considered, doubly so. In the absence of these discussions, the onus has been on parents themselves, not employers or policy-makers or the media. “There’s a stigma right now that you cant say ‘I’m not available because I’m helping my kid with my homework from 2–3,’ and you have to empower people to do that especially during the pandemic,” says Kossek. Though she says managers should lead these conversations, the reality is that they so frequently fall on employees that it’s clear women aren’t just expected to seamlessly perform childcare and household and work duties simultaneously, they’re also expected to start the conversation about why such expectations are unfair.
Therein lies the crux of the issue: although much valuable discussion has been devoted to how COVID-19 has exposed the disparities in class, gender, and income, the parenting issue intersects with all three of those things, yet receives relatively little attention.
There are some who are optimistic about the long-term changes that COVID-19 may bring in terms of gender dynamics and parenting. In the long run we know that when men learn to actually get hands-on experience with the kind of work they were able to ignore for so long, they do do better Kossek says, citing studies that show how men who take paternity leave end up assuming more of the burden of household labor. Now that men have been forced to pick up some of the childcare burden, becoming more intimately acquainted with its accompanying gifts and travails, “I think there may be some possibilities for forward progress after this,” she says.
A new study finds that employees are working longer hours since the shift to remote work amid the coronavirus pandemic began, even as companies across the country have cut wages.
The average work day is now 48.5 minutes longer, meaning employees are at work an average of four hours more per week, according to a study of 3.1 million workers by researchers at Harvard and New York University published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Some cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, have seen their average work day decrease since its peak in the spring, but longer hours remain the status quo in cities like New York, San Jose, and many European cities.
The study, which analyzed anonymous email and calendar data from workers at more than 21,000 companies in 16 global metropolitan areas, also found that the number of meetings has increased by 13%, though the length of meetings fell by about 11%.
Though the shift to remote work has provided additional flexibility and allows workers to save time on commutes, workers are plugged in more than ever.
“People are afraid — the fear around your job and around the economy — I want to make sure [managers] know I’m constantly responding to emails and messages and am always on Slack,” Cali Williams Yost, the founder of workplace consultancy firm Flex Stategy, told The Washington Post. “It’s a toxic brew of burnout and overwhelm.”
Jeffrey Polzer, a Harvard Business School professor and one of the paper’s authors, cautioned that longer work days do not mean people are necessarily working more than before, noting that calendar and email data cannot account for unscheduled breaks and interruptions during the day. Either way, being at work longer can have negative effects as well.
“Is it working from home or living at work, or both?” Polzer told the Post. “As we try to manage our work from home environment, it’s very hard to turn off work. That’s always been true since our phones have followed us home, but that phenomenon has grown.”
Polzer predicted that the trend toward longer workdays is unsustainable. “Organizations are trying to figure out what the capacity is to handle this type of work,” he said. “People will start burning out if we don’t rethink how they’re spending their time.”
Other analyses have found similar results.
Microsoft found that its workers have been communicating more between 6 pm and midnight since the shift to remote work, according to the Harvard Business Review. A survey by the job search engine Monster found that 69% of workers have experience burnout as a result of working from home last month, a 20-point increase since May.
Nearly 70 percent of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on the weekends, and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before, according to a survey of 2,800 workers by Los Angeles-based staffing firm Robert Half. The survey also found that working parents were more likely to work weekends and more than eight hours per day than those without children. Men were more likely than women to report working on weekends and putting in 40-plus hour workweeks. And more workers under the age of 40 said they usually work weekends and more than eight hours per day than those older than 40.
“While remote work affords employees greater flexibility, it also makes disconnecting extremely difficult,” said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “Many people feel pressure to keep up with rising workloads and are putting in long hours to support the business and customer needs.”
The lack of employee training on how to manage the boundaries between work and life in the years before COVID-19 is an underlying problem, said Cali Williams Yost, a nationally recognized expert on workplace flexibility and founder of the consultancy Flex+Strategy Group in New York City. “Managing the boundaries between work and life is a skill set people need and most didn’t have before the pandemic and still don’t,” she said. “Simply handing an employee a laptop and downloading Zoom or some other collaborative software is not enough to help employees manage their work and lives through the pandemic and beyond.”
Fear and uncertainty about the economy and job security also drive some of this behavior, Yost added. “Taken together — lack of boundary-setting skills, lack of alternatives to work, and fear — this is a perfect storm of overwork.”
It’s too early to say whether this will be a long-term trend. But experts don’t expect the shift to remote work to end anytime soon.
“It’s not like we’re going back to normal times,” Polzer told Bloomberg. Despite the longer work hours, millions of employees have seen their pay reduced amid the pandemic. While tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, at least another 4 million private-sector workers have had their pay cut since the pandemic began, according to researchers at the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute.
The average base wage in the US decreased by more than 5% between February and May, the researchers said in a study, and businesses have cut nominal wages for about 10% of employees still on the job while “forgoing regularly scheduled wage increases for others.” Some businesses have cut pay by up to 50%.
Workers are more than twice as likely to get a pay cut amid the pandemic than they were during the Great Recession, the study found.
Another analysis by payroll processor Gusto found that hourly workers were disproportionately affected by pay cuts, seeing an average of 23% less pay between February and May.
Millions of other workers have had their hours reduced, leaving them with smaller paychecks. More than 6 million workers have been forced to work part-time due to economic conditions despite wanting to work full-time, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
“I have Fridays off but I would rather have the money,” Denise Iezzi, a New Jersey accounting assistant, told the Post. “You go to work every day and just wonder when will this end. Surviving on three or four days a week just doesn’t cut it.”
The Gusto analysis found that hour reductions have been the biggest driver of wage reductions, cutting pay by an average of 32% to affected workers. The analysis also found that the cuts have affected virtually every sector, with industries like tech, finance, and law particularly affected.
“Businesses typically fire you before they cut your pay, so this is really atypical,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There’s a real risk we would see actual nominal wage declines, which would be unprecedented.”
Some companies, like Tesla, have also cut executive pay, arguing that pay cuts should be a “shared sacrifice.” But a UK study found that the highly-publicized reports of executive pay cuts were largely “superficial or short-term,” noting that salaries typically make up a small part of executive compensation packages.
The media reports also ignore the size of executive pay compared to employee pay. A recent analysis by the New Hampshire Business Review found that the average CEO compensation package was just under $10 million while the median worker pay was around $56,000.
An analysis of S&P 500 companies found that CEOs averaged $14.8 million in compensation, 264 times higher than the median worker pay at those companies.
“The salary reductions amounted to a small percentage of their compensation package, which is primarily based on equity and cash incentives,” the Business Review noted. “The stock market, while volatile, has been going up, increasing the worth of those packages.”
The New York Times noted that, in a survey of 3,000 public companies, “only a small percentage of the companies cut salaries for their senior executives at all.”
Economists also worry that the trend could reverse wage increase gains, which grew 3.4% last year after years of stagnation. “It took us so long to see even the slightest acceleration in wage growth,” Martha Gimbel, a labor market expert and manager of economic research at Schmidt Futures, told the Post. “Watching that get undermined is devastating.”
Supporting Work/Life Balance
Experts agree that the trend toward a longer workday will not be sustainable, and that HR and line managers should support flexible scheduling and encourage employees to take breaks during the day and time off when needed. “The pandemic has pushed companies to prioritize employee experience,” McDonald said. “Savvy employers are making lasting changes to support their staff’s needs and well-being, such as providing greater autonomy and flexibility.”
Yost said HR and line managers need to make work/life boundary management a regular conversation. “Set clear priorities so employees can plan their lives around them,” she said. “Clarify expectations for accessibility and responsiveness such as during what hours e-mails or instant message should be reviewed and responded to, or when is it best to call or text.”
Managers need to monitor the number of hours that their employees are logging and make it a priority to encourage time off and assist in balancing employee workloads, Zung said. “Having a weekly meeting to prioritize workloads, reassign projects, or move project end-dates will create a better work environment and a culture that encourages employees to power down nightly and during the weekend. Line managers need to model ‘checking out’ behaviors so their employees believe it is acceptable to do the same.”
The Perfect Storm
A combination of COVID wrecking havoc in the workplace, and sudden shift to remote work placing stress on families — particularly women — and the “great resignation,” where workers are resisting returning to work in toxic workplaces with toxic bosses presents a perfect storm for a rapid escalation of mental health problems, something we are witnessing the beginnings of already.