Remote work really does mean longer days - and more meetings

The massive global shift to remote work since the pandemic began has led to some upsides: More flexibility, no commute, more comfortable pants.

But those who sense this grand experiment in working from home also comes with plenty of downsides - longer days, more meetings and more email to answer - are now backed up by data from 3.1 million workers.

The average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes in the weeks following lockdowns, and the number of meetings increased by 13%, a working paper published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed.

The study, which examined the anonymous email and calendar data of more than three million users from an unnamed tech provider, also found significant increases in internal email, and in meeting sizes.

Anyone who's been working from home amid the unyielding health crisis - especially those also juggling the education or care of children - won't be surprised. While anecdotal interviews or smaller surveys have already pointed to similar results, said Jeffrey Polzer, a Harvard Business School professor and one of the paper's co-authors, "what our study adds is documentation at scale of the overall pattern."

The paper, which looked at data from more than 21,000 companies and in 16 large metropolitan areas worldwide during the eight weeks before and after local lockdowns, only represents workers using the tech provider's product. And while large, the data only represents a fraction of the workforce.

But it offers a snapshot of how work habits and communication styles have changed for many workers as they tried navigating remote work en masse, especially as the economy worsened, white-collar layoffs mounted and professional anxieties exploded.

"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," said Cali Williams Yost, founder of the workplace consultancy Flex Strategy Group. That's compounded by a lack of management skills in setting the right tone for remote work, she said. "It's a toxic brew of burnout and overwhelm."

For many employees, one bright spot in the paper's results will be that the total amount of time scheduled for meetings was lower. That fell 11.5%, or nearly 20 minutes per day, according to the data, and the average meeting duration was scheduled to be shorter. (It is unclear how long meetings actually lasted.) The number of emails also returned to pre-lockdown activity over time, the paper said.

The report found some differences between workers in America and Europe. In many European cities, for instance, the reduction in scheduled meeting length was stark, while the decrease in U.S. cities was relatively minor. And while the span of the workday remained high in some cities, including New York, it returned to baseline in others during the post-lockdown period the researchers studied.

Having a longer workday span does not necessarily mean people worked more hours within that day, Polzer is careful to note. Examining the earliest and latest email and calendar data does not account for those who broke away to take care of elderly parents, managed multiple interruptions from schooling young children at home or simply chose to walk the dog for the third time that day.

But a day broken up into shorter meetings or one that bleeds longer into the evening - even if the total number of hours worked isn't more - can have downsides, too. "Is it working from home or living at work, or both?" Polzer said. "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 said the researchers did not break out data by gender to see whether men's or women's workday span grew more. In the months since the pandemic began, many have grown concerned that women will take the biggest long-term hits to their careers as schools and day cares remain closed and women disproportionately lose jobs or are forced to make painful choices between their careers, child care and education.

Over time, Polzer said, a trend toward a longer and longer day won't be sustainable. "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."

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