Does the pandemic have us working longer hours?

24th Sep 2020

Modern management theorist Peter Drucker defined the ‘knowledge worker’ as a forward-thinking employee whose work is ever-changing, dynamic and autonomous.[1] For many knowledge workers, remote working arrangements have been somewhat of a blessing due to the flexibility that comes with working from home.

To others, remote working has been nothing short of disastrous, often due to the inability of their organisation’s IT infrastructure to support multiple isolated temporary workplaces.

But despite technology access lags and non-ergonomic home office setups, there’s no doubt that this new normal has brought with it the luxury of plasticity in how and when work is done.

The downside has been the loss of demarcation between our work and personal lives, meaning that we’re actually working longer hours than ever before.

A recent paper published by the Harvard Business School reveals that across the globe, knowledge workers – who by definition should be enjoying their starched white collars and cosy office comforts – are now doing their heavy lifting around the clock.[2]

The paper collected meeting and email metadata from 3.1 million workers across 21,478 firms in 16 different locked down cities across the world and found a significant change between the behaviours of workers during the eight weeks leading up to COVID-19 lockdown, and their behaviours in the following eight weeks (while still in lockdown).[3]

These changes included:

  1. 12.9% increase in the number of meetings per person;
  2. 13.5% increase in the number of attendees at meetings;
  3. 20.1% decrease in the duration of meetings; and
  4. 8.2% increase in the length of the working day (equivalent to 48 minutes).[4]

My take on these numbers is that we’ve found ourselves in more, albeit shorter, meetings with more people, and that has resulted in almost a good hour being tacked onto the working day. So we’re giving a greater number of people shorter grabs of our time across a multitude of new meetings, and then having to make up more time after office hours. If I were a betting man, that would have to be a lose-lose situation.

But does this mean we should just go back to commuting?

And what does this say for the rest of the workforce if the very top end of it (the knowledge workers) are now in fact working longer but not necessarily smarter?

Or is it the case that these workers, who were heralded as the ‘most valuable assets’ for a 21st century organisation due to their high level of productivity and creativity, can’t seem to stop working because of an iso-life-induced limbo?

The Harvard Business School’s academics certainly suggest that this may be true. They point to a range of possible reasons for the changes in the way knowledge workers have collaborated since the beginning of the pandemic, but for me the most striking finding of the research is that employees seem to have simply decided to work more when doing so remotely.[5] Whether that’s because they are ‘giving back’ some of their commute time to their employer, or are feeling less efficient working from home (surely popping out from the kitchen table desk to put on a load of washing during the day must take its toll?). Or perhaps it’s just that we’ve been so bored while confined to our homes that we work more to ensure that we spend less time eating and drinking.

Surely we can’t have come full circle from the iconic 1980s, when working nine-to-five, using your mind and never getting credit was eschewed (with a little help from Dolly Parton) by the next generation of ‘four-hour work week’ employees.

Whatever the reason, I’m certain that those of us who think for a living may have just been thinking too much … and let’s face it, there’s been plenty to ponder during the last six months. By the time the next set of workers are analysed, I’m sure there will have been a return to pre-COVID-19 work hours.

What do you think?

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on the Travis Schultz and Partners website, here.

Travis Schultz is Managing Partner of Travitz Schultz & Partners. He has been an accredited specialist in personal injury law since 1999 and is recognised as one of Queensland’s leading compensation lawyers.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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[1] P Drucker, The Landmarks of Tomorrow, 1959.

[2] E DeFilippis, SM Impink, M Singell, JT Polzer, and R Sadun, Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work (Working paper, 16 July 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Tags: General legal practice