More Work Hours During the Pandemic



By Stuart Esrock, Ph.D.

Working from home during the COVID-19 crisis in some ways has been a blessing.  But remote work is also a double-edged sword that could have longer lasting implications even as the pandemic eases.  

Calvin Coker, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication who teaches a course in communication technologies, thinks we must acknowledge the positive impact of things like the Internet, computers, email, and conferencing apps during the pandemic. “Though this doesn’t hold true for many of the most essential workers in the economy, communication technology has allowed some folks to continue to work even through rigid social distancing requirements that make physical offices impossible. A segment of the population has been able to keep humming along even in the face of social distancing and COVID-19, largely because of technological connection.”  

Working from home obviously protects workers from COVID-19.  And, flexible at-home work schedules afford opportunities to take breaks and step outside, attend to medical appointments and personal matters, and work at times of day when feeling most productive.  

But work-from-home also blurs the lines of work and private/home life.  In so doing, it portends the potential of overworking and the National Bureau of Economic Research sees signs of that happening already. 

The Bureau conducted research on more than 3 million workers and found that since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the average work day has grown by about 48 minutes. The same thing seemly happened during the “Great Recession” a decade ago when one-third of workers reported the economy had worsened their work-life balance as they took on more hours. 

Professor Coker thinks the current increase in at-home work hours results from two factors.  “First, a constricting job market creates fear for security. People end up working longer hours and taking on more responsibilities to make themselves invaluable, or to compensate for reductions in workforce. The second pressure corresponds with moving remote, and communication technology. We’d already been moving towards expectations of employees being ‘always on’ because of email or work chats on phones, and the pandemic has exacerbated that (rather toxic) trend with work being placed squarely in the physical household. The technology facilitates both surveillance of the employee, and increased workloads in the form of learning new interfaces and shifting expectations in the face of crisis.”

In addition to longer work hours, the Bureau’s research study shows workers are now sending more emails and holding more meetings. However, the meetings were shorter than usual, with the result that total time spent in meetings has actually decreased.

Longer work days may be a longer-term trend.  More companies have announced plans to keep employees working from home, even as the pandemic eases and society returns to a more normal daily existence. For example, Twitter’s 5,000 employees are being given the option to permanently work on a remote basis, and Facebook plans for half of its workforce to be working remotely within the next few years.  They are not alone. A new study by Gartner, a leading national consulting firm, shows 80% of companies surveyed plan to have their staff work remotely at least part-time.

Given that potential, is there something that employees can do to protect themselves from overworking?  According to Coker, “Though the temptation may be to lean into new technology adoption, consider making rigid boundaries which were previously set by the work day. Email or Slack on your phone inadvertently extends time working, especially when you are ‘off the clock’ at home. Physically distancing yourself from the technology will keep the compulsion to work longer hours at bay. Delete the apps if you can, or silence their notifications when you are nominally off duty.”