Some disappointing news for those who thought that working from home would free us from the daily grind: the working day is almost an hour longer than it was before the pandemic.
People are no longer commuting for hours on end but they are spending 48.5 minutes more at their desk each day, according to a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The government has said repeatedly that it wants people to return to work, and that employers would find it easy to lay off staff that they never see.
Before the pandemic 6 per cent of British employees worked from home. In April, at the peak of the outbreak and lockdown restrictions, that had risen to 43 per cent. Nine in ten staff who have worked from home say that they would like to continue in some form — even if they are working longer hours. Almost 70 per cent said that they got as much or more done from home as they would in a workplace.
Fears that people are lounging about in their pyjamas and getting little done may be unfounded.
Academics from Harvard Business School and the New York University analysed email and calendar data from 3.1 million workers at 21,000 companies in 16 large cities in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
During the 16-week period covering most government lockdowns the span of time between the first and last email sent or meeting attended in a day increased by an average of 48.5 minutes.
This was largely because more emails were being sent after usual business hours and was driven by increased communication between people at the same company. The number of internal emails rose by about 5 per cent, or an additional 1.4 emails per person, per day.
Workers have also been attending more meetings than before the pandemic. The number of meetings rose by 12.9 per cent and the average number of people attending each of these meetings was 13.5 per cent higher.
Despite this the pandemic has put an end to the tedium of “slow” meetings or a never-ending discussion — the average time of a meeting fell by a fifth. As a result the time that employees spent in meetings each day fell by nearly 20 minutes, or 11.5 per cent.
Researchers said that people suffered from shorter attention spans when working from home, which could be leading the trend towards shorter, more frequent, meetings. “Though speculative, it is possible that employees also find it harder to stay engaged in long virtual meetings compared to in-person meetings. An employee’s attention span may be additionally strained by challenges specific to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as taking care of children who are not in school,” the report said.
Although working hours are longer than before the lockdown, that does not necessarily mean that people are staying productive for longer. The findings could point to more flexible arrangements, with people working atypical hours to better balance their domestic and childcare duties.
It was too soon to judge if our new patterns of work would be good for us, the researchers said. “On the 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,” they wrote.
“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.”