A paper published this week in the National Bureau of Economic Research examined data from over 3.1 million work from home employees and found that, compared to pre-pandemic times, workers are experiencing “significant and durable increases in length of the average workday.”
Said distance workers everywhere: “Sorry, what? I have to go, my boss is calling on the other line.”
The paper, which hasn’t been officially published yet, purports to be “the first large scale analysis of how digital communication patterns have changed in the early stages of the pandemic.” Its findings don’t cover the experiences of people who work in-person jobs or of people who’ve been laid off and are now looking for work, which is its own never-ending nightmare of round-the-clock labor. But the paper did affirm what people who have been working from home for months have suspected all along: long-term work-from-home is more work, not less, compared to working in an office.
Looking at data from over three million workers in 16 metropolitan areas in and outside the United States, the authors of the paper found that “the average workday span increased by +48.5 minutes.” That’s almost an extra hour of work time, potentially without additional compensation or even your boss’s total awareness. (And before bosses reading this roll their eyes at the figure, these numbers aren’t self-reported; they’re taken from information technology services providers.)
What’s more, 48.5 minutes is a conservative estimate. The researchers defined the span of the workday as “the first and last email sent or meeting attended in a 24-hour period.” Consider all the times these three million workers read their email, did research, or drafted their email responses, before hitting “send” or “join meeting.” (Consider the fact that Google indicates my own editor input her changes into this document at 8:01 p.m.)
The researchers further found that those additional minutes of work didn’t level out as the pandemic dug in—“The average workday span of an employee was higher in every week following the lockdown than any week in the eight weeks prior to the lockdown,” according to the paper.
And the report also found “short term increased email activity,” significant increase of internal emails, and that employees were also “sending more emails outside of working hours.” Sure, work from home allows for more flexibility and those of us who are working from home are privileged in ways that millions of other Americans are not. But that added flexibility also means more flexibility to send emails from the bath, to send emails from evening runs, to send emails during the precious hours between the “end” of the work day and the time you start sending emails during working hours again.
Work from home is like plenty of other things—waxing your own armpits, going grocery shopping, giving birth to a baby. Yes, there may be upsides, and some people would willingly choose it over the alternative, but it is still work. During work from home, you are liberated. You can sing to yourself, eat frosting from the can, and transform your lunch hour into a covert daily nap routine. But the boundaries that once separated work and home have evaporated like the bubbles from the bath where you were relaxing until you started fine tuning deliverables for that meeting tomorrow.
Having income in a system where lacking it can mean hunger, homelessness, and no access to medical care is a huge stroke of luck and privilege. But being employed—even in a relatively cushy work-from-home position—during a historic joblessness crisis can mean working literal overtime to try to hold onto it. For some people with disabilities, the mass shift to remote work is somewhat more inclusive, but it’s also painfully ironic, given the number of workplaces that claimed to be “in-person only,” only to adjust easily during the pandemic. For parents, especially moms, many of whom longed for more flexible work-from-home options in normal times, the gift of unlimited work from home coupled with the absolute lack of outside childcare can feel like a cruel joke.
There’s a very small amount of good news in the paper—yes, the number of daily meetings is up, and yes, the number of people involved in each meeting is up, but meetings are shorter, leading to “a net decrease in the total number of hours that employees spent in meetings.” Speaking as someone who recently woke up groggily to an email informing me that my phone interview with Amy Schumer in 10 minutes “will actually be on video, sorry for the late notice!” these meetings are still taxing.
“It is unclear if this increase in average workday span represents a benefit or drawback to employee well-being,” the writers of the paper claimed. “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. On the other hand, the change in work schedule may be a consequence of a blurred distinction between work and personal life, in which it becomes easy to overwork due to the lack of clear delineation between the office and home.”
Could more hours of (for most people) unpaid work represent a “benefit” to the employee’s well being? Okay, could it benefit people if the extra work is in exchange for reasonable life accommodations, like dealing with one’s children, taking occasional walks, and not having ones every moment monitored and monetized? Could the real enemy here be not the concept of work from home nor the concept of offices, but rather, the churning push for productivity occasioned by a capitalist system with threadbare, tattered safety nets that posits that one’s capacity for labor is one’s main form of value?
Moms who spoke to Glamour for this article considered that question and said— Just kidding, we didn’t even consider bothering moms during a pandemic for something this trivial.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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