Why the pandemic work from home day is longer

New research suggests people are working longer from home during the pandemic and are doing more meetings.

A woman sits at her desk with hand sanitiser and face mask in the foreground


The pandemic work from home day is longer and involves more meetings, according to a new US study – which may be news for those media pundits suggesting that we all need to get back to the office in order to do some work, confusing furlough and working from home as if they are the same thing.

The researchers compared employee behaviour in cities around the world over two eight-week periods before and after Covid-19 lockdowns and worked out that the average working day was 48.5 minutes longer during the pandemic, the number of meetings increased by about 13% and people sent an average of 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.

In some cities the working day returned to pre-pandemic levels in a few weeks, but in others, including in most of Europe, the longer days lasted. The researchers from Harvard and New York University also found that, despite there being more meetings, additional meetings were shorter and that some workers were logging in at odd hours, which they put down in part to childcare responsibilities.

Remote working and productivity

The study is interesting in the light of research on productivity and remote working. Previous studies have shown remote workers have a tendency to do longer hours – this is often put down to the blurring of the lines between work and family life and also to the sense that working remotely is a favour and that that favour could be withdrawn at any time.

Pandemic remote working is not the same as normal remote working, though, particularly when it comes to childcare. There was also the stress of moving everything to remote working in the early weeks and putting in place ways of keeping in touch. That tallies with the increased meetings. Many workers have reported being on back to back zoom calls most of the working day. The impact on mental and physical health is not good. In offices, you can catch up with people in the corridor or while moving around. You don’t have to book a formal zoom session to do so.

It’s interesting because workingmums.co.uk is a remote working company, used to working from home, and we have also increased the amount of meetings we have during the pandemic – in part because some colleagues have been on furlough [which has meant regular social meetings to keep in touch as well as a greater need to touch base with those who are not and to react quickly to a rapidly changing situation]. Zoom and the like have also meant it is easier to set up events, such as roundtables or to tap into meetings that would normally mean half a day out of the office travelling to and from them.

It has also meant greater access, for instance, to other people’s events as – if you don’t have to commute – you can attend more of them. The trouble is knowing when to say no and making sure you don’t spend all day sat in one position on endless calls, punctuated only by checking up on children’s school work. It’s okay for short bursts, but as a regular thing it is completely draining.

The answer seems to be, in many cases, for managers to check in more regularly with colleagues or set up well being sessions, which can add to the problem, particularly for the manager! It comes down to the old equation – if you are adding something, you need to take something away. Perhaps after a few months, the need to check in quite so regularly can be levelled off or, some check-ins can be optional. That, of course, has to be balanced by the need to prevent social isolation.

Are there other ways around it, using technology or local hub offices? The best way to gauge impact is, of course, to ask people what they find useful and sustainable in the long term, given the current situation, or versions of it, is likely to be continue for some time. Working longer and having more meetings should not, however, like working while teaching/caring for children, be seen as a blueprint for the future. Remote working is not about squeezing more out of people or forcing people to work in ways that don’t work for them; it should be about giving them more choice about how and where they work.

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