Is flexible working making us work more?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
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While remote working can be beneficial, some have reported how it is difficult to switch off from their duties, especially if computers, papers and other office ephemera are on view. Photo: Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced legions of workers to move from offices to kitchen tables. In theory, less time spent commuting and chit-chatting in communal areas has given workers more free time and improved their work-life balance. In reality, though, many remote workers have found themselves spending even longer than normal at their desks.

Remote working is often maligned by employers. Earlier this year, City chief executive Andrew Monk claimed remote workers in financial services were less productive and allowed people to do “part-time work” on “full-time salaries". In February, Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon labelled remote working an “aberration”.

However, research suggests this isn’t necessarily true. In April, the Office for National Statistics published data that compared working from home in the UK between 2011 and 2020. It found that those who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week last year, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never work from home.

Additionally, homeworkers were more likely to work in the evenings compared to those who worked away from home. Remote workers took fewer sick days than their in-house peers too.

Other recent surveys have told a similar story. A poll of 8,301 professionals and employers conducted by the recruitment firm Hays found that 52% reported working longer hours when working remotely than before the pandemic. Of these, a quarter reported working more than 10 extra hours a week, while another 41% said they put in between five and 10 extra hours a week.

Read more: Is there any point to offices after COVID-19?

But why are remote workers putting in longer hours – and does this make them more productive or is it fuelling high rates of burnout?

“The aim of flexible working is to make life and work connect in a smoother way, whether that be via a change in working hours or working at home,” says Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR. “It can, however, come with a perception that those who work flexibly are less committed to their job than those who don’t and so can find themselves working more hours to compensate.

“Working from home can sometimes blur the lines between work and home life, and homeworkers may find themselves unable to cut off from work when the ‘office’ is within the family home,” he adds. “They’ll ‘just finish’ something off, normally rationalising it by using the time that they would normally have spent commuting.”

For home-workers, it is more difficult to stick to your normal working hours. If you can see your laptop and your work in a pile on the kitchen table or in the lounge, it will always be at the back of your mind as you try to switch off after work. It’s far more tempting to check your work messages or to fire off a quick email to a client after hours, rather than properly disconnect from it.

Studies have shown the shift to remote working has altered our attitudes towards work. In an analysis of more than 7,000 hybrid workers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland and the United Arab Emirates, more than half (58%) said the increase in remote working has meant they are unable to relax or switch off from work.

And with rising rates of redundancy during the pandemic, many people have felt under pressure to work longer and harder to prove their worth to their employers.

Read more: Are watercooler moments really so important in the workplace?

Whether these longer hours lead to increased productivity is a complex issue, however. Many studies have found remote working has boosted workers’ effectiveness, with a Stanford study of 16,000 workers suggesting that home-working increased productivity by 13%. According to the researchers, this increase in performance could be attributed to more minutes per shift and a quieter, more convenient working environment, with fewer sick days.

Yet other studies have found that stress and burnout as a result of these longer hours – along with social isolation – may have reduced productivity. Whether or not workers thrive at home depends on their individual circumstances, including their home environment, ability to adapt to changing circumstances and their capacity to overcome interruptions.

It’s clear that overworking can be detrimental to both productivity and health. So what can employers do to encourage people to take regular breaks and switch off when they need to?

“A clear line on working hours and expectations for any extra hours is needed,” says Price. “Regular check-ins on employees to discuss workload are useful and a right to disconnect policy, though not legally required, can really drive home an employer’s stance on making sure employees are getting the downtime they need.”

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