Over the past 19 months, millions of Americans have discovered the benefits of working from home. No more soul-crushing commutes! Fewer distractions! Comfier furniture! But what I’ve heard people rave about the most is the sense of control that remote work has given them over their lives. I work out at the gym in the middle of the day when it’s empty. I pause work for mealtime with the kids. I can go visit my parents without having to take time off. Corporate America now intends to let employees keep much of their newfound autonomy beyond the pandemic. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai declared in May, “The future of work is flexibility.”
That flexibility — to work where and when and how we want — feels like a profound victory for college-educated workers. But however much I love the freedom of working from home, I’m starting to worry that we may wind up paying a heavy price for it. Decades of research have highlighted the dangers of giving people unfettered autonomy in the workplace: Rather than setting their own boundaries, employees often end up working longer and harder than before. So it wasn’t a surprise when people did exactly that after COVID-19 struck. A Harvard Business School study found that the average workday lengthened by 49 minutes during the pandemic.
I see those dangers in myself. No one told me to work more to make up for the privilege of staying home, but that’s what I do. After I run errands or go for a jog in the middle of the day, I catch myself working late into the night to compensate for the “lost” work time — or I stew in anxiety, wondering whether I should have. Even worse, by putting in more time than before, at all hours, I’m reinforcing a culture of ever more work for my colleagues, shifting the norms of what’s enough. For college-educated professionals like me, work from anywhere is starting to look more like work from everywhere.
“I love flexibility, but flexibility is also a burden,” Melissa Mazmanian, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine who cowrote “Dreams of the Overworked,” told me. “The pressure is now on you to navigate and structure your own life.” That’s hard to do when you’re at the mercy of coworkers — and even harder when you’re no longer in the same room with them. “You don’t have those clear markers of how we should be engaging with each other,” she said. “So you can get these escalating expectations of communication and accessibility and availability.” In an office, face time ends at 5. But FaceTime never sleeps.
‘A cycle of ratcheting expectations’
Ambitious professionals have always worked long hours — that’s the nature of ambition. But for decades, going to work at an office placed a physical limit on how long those hours could be. What changed that was technology: Suddenly, white-collar workers could bring their work with them everywhere they went. And one of the first of those technologies was the BlackBerry.
In 2004, Mazmanian, then a doctoral student at MIT, set out to understand what high-powered overachievers like investment bankers and corporate attorneys thought of their BlackBerrys. The device was only about five years old, but it had already transformed the way people worked. And they loved it.
“It’s just freedom,” one attorney said. “You can connect whenever you want and not be prevented by where you are or what you’re doing.” A private-equity professional gushed, “It helps me make choices about when to work and when to do other stuff.” As the professionals saw it, the BlackBerry gave them more control over their lives.
But with everyone choosing to be available constantly — outside regular business hours, they reported checking their BlackBerry every five to 10 minutes in the morning and every 10 to 60 minutes on evenings and weekends — a new norm had formed: one that forced professionals to be available at all times. “It’s a cycle of ratcheting expectations,” Mazmanian told me. One subject reported: “If I don’t respond to an email in an hour, people start to bug me, they start to wonder if something’s really wrong. I mean, it’s that bad.” Another asked, “At what point of your day does the workday end?” The very technology that was supposed to give everyone more freedom ended up taking away their freedom — the freedom to enjoy their lives outside work. Mazmanian and her coauthors at MIT called this “the autonomy paradox.”
Since then, a succession of new technologies have turbocharged the paradox. The BlackBerry was replaced by the iPhone, which people loaded with tools like studied this phenomenon of overtime hours at home. “It was like: ‘Here’s your job. If you can’t get it done in 40 hours, we’ll let you do it from home.'”that tethered them to their jobs even more. At the same time, file-sharing, high-speed internet, and powerful laptops allowed people to take their work home with them to complete on evenings and weekends. “Employers were taking advantage of flexibility by asking workers to work weekends and evenings for free,” said Jennifer Glass, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin who
Then COVID-19 struck, forcing an unprecedented number of professionals to work from home. If all the workplace technologies of the past two decades had steadily chipped away at the boundary between work and home, then full-time work from home — enabled by those technologies — finally obliterated that boundary altogether. When Salesforce announced its transition to a hybrid workplace in February, its chief people officer declared, “The 9-to-5 workday is dead.” I’m sure he meant it as a celebration of greater autonomy, but to me the declaration had a dystopian ring. Few people I know worked only 9 to 5 even before the pandemic. But today, most people I talk to are finding that, without clear hours during which they’re expected to be in the office, work is bleeding into every free minute they have, from the moment they wake up in the morning until the second they turn off the light at night. It’s not just the number of hours we’re working — it’s the endless nature of the work that’s getting to us.
Work bleeding into life
Researchers have tried to quantify exactly how much more Americans have been working since the pandemic hit. But it’s not as simple as you might think. Some studies, like the one from Harvard I cited earlier, looked at the first and last work-related task — say, sending an email or joining a meeting — that people completed on a given day. By that measure, the average workday stretched 49 minutes longer from end to end. Using a similar method, a study of more than 60,000 Microsoft employees found that the average workweek had lengthened by 10%. And a provider found that since the pandemic struck, its users had been logging on to work remotely for a whopping three hours more a day.
But those studies don’t take into account the off-again, on-again nature of work from home. What if an employee went grocery shopping in the middle of the day? It could be that people are working the same number of hours, just spread out over a longer period of time. In the annual time-use survey overseen by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people in the kinds of sectors that saw big shifts to remote work during COVID-19 — law firms, technology companies, news organizations, investment banks — did report working slightly longer hours during the pandemic. But when you broaden it out to include all college-educated workers, there was no discernible increase: People worked 7.42 hours a day in 2019 and 7.43 hours in 2020.
So I decided to conduct an experiment of my own: I kept a detailed record of my week, carrying around a notebook in which I logged the exact time I started and completed every activity I engaged in. But at the end of the week, as I tried to tally up the minutes, I struggled with how to classify many of my activities. If I brainstormed different beginnings to a story while I was on my afternoon run, should that count as exercise or work? What if I washed the dishes as I listened in on a newsroom meeting? The boundary has blurred so much for me that I can’t even tell what’s work and what’s life. (Sociologists, it turns out, actually measure the degree to which workers’ boundaries have disintegrated — a phenomenon researchers call “role blurring” — by asking whether they try to multitask work and home activities.)
But I don’t need a time log to tell me something I already know: I’m never really fully clocked out anymore. It’s not just that my brain is always one association away from a cascade of thoughts about my next sentence, my next paragraph, my next story. That’s been true for as long as I’ve been a journalist. It’s that I feel guilty and confused all the time — either because I feel as if I’m not working enough, or because I feel as if I’m working too much. Working from home means I never leave the office, and I’m never truly home.
I think that’s a big reason employee burnout is on the rise. In a survey released by Indeed earlier this year, remote workers were more likely than on-site workers to say the pandemic worsened their levels of burnout. Glint, an employee-engagement survey provider owned by LinkedIn, found something similar. People who worked at remote-friendly companies were 32% more likely to say they struggled with work-life balance, compared with those at companies with few remote jobs.
It’s important to note that there’s one big inequality embedded in this balancing act. Mazmanian, teaming up with researchers at Syracuse University, has been studying people like freelancers and small-business owners, who enjoy more freedom to organize their days than full-time employees. She’s found that the challenge of striking a balance between the personal and the professional is profoundly affected by a single variable: having young kids. Nonparents like me are struggling to prevent work from colonizing our home life. But parents are struggling to prevent their home life from colonizing their work.
That makes our flexible future especially worrying for working mothers. Without an off switch for the hours we work, we’ll all reach a point at which we run out of free hours — and women with childcare duties will hit that point far earlier than the rest of us. “If there’s nothing that stops the rat race, whoever works the most is going to ascend the hierarchy,” Glass, the University of Texas sociologist, told me. “And if you don’t join that rat race, you will never get promoted. That’s the essence of the disadvantage for women who have children. If you cannot put in those extreme work hours, you’re out of the rat race. You just can’t compete.” That’s the greatest irony of all: Working from home, with the flexibility it offers to look after the kids, threatens to shut out the very people it was supposed to help the most.
The flaw in ‘setting healthy boundaries’
The thing is, it’s not as if I want my editor to drag me to the office, chain me to my desk, and hover over me as I type away from 9 to 5 every weekday. I love that he leaves me alone and trusts me to get my work done from 3,000 miles away. But the rapid rise of working from home raises an important question: How can we create boundaries around work when we’re doing our jobs from our bedrooms and carrying our offices with us on our phones?
The American way is to place the burden of boundary-setting on the individual. I’m being granted the extraordinary privilege of working from home and setting my own hours, so how I set them is my responsibility. But in many jobs, limiting your work hours, or refusing to make yourself available on demand, can come with steep consequences. You can lose out on choice assignments and on opportunities for promotion. You might even lose your job.
This, I think, is where all the self-help advice about “setting healthy boundaries” gets it wrong. Workplaces — even remote ones — develop norms. If even just a few ambitious people decide to be on call from sunup to midnight, that competitive advantage will force everyone else to remain plugged in just to keep up. It’s employers, not employees, who have the primary responsibility to set — and enforce — a standard of behavior for remote work.
Human-resources departments across the US are alarmed at the levels of burnout they’re seeing, and I get the impression that many of them are genuine in their desire to get employees to work less. But when I asked Mazmanian about some simple interventions that companies had started to adopt, she was skeptical. Blanket, surface-level rules, like banning emails after 5 o’clock or making Fridays Zoom-free, have become trendy. But if the underlying culture of the workplace doesn’t change, people will find a way to get around the rules to get ahead. And as Glass reminded me, just as employees are in a rat race against one another, companies are in their own rat race against other companies. Persuading employees to work less could mean losing out on business to rivals, at least in the short run.
That’s why Glass thinks the only real meaningful change can come from a federal law to limit the length of the workweek. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in the wake of the Great Depression, requires employers to pay higher wages to employees who work more than 40 hours a week. But the law exempts many salaried workers, who are the most likely now to be working from home. And unlike other industrialized nations, which set upper limits on the number of hours an employer can expect people to work, the US does nothing to cap the workweek. As a result, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 11% of Americans work 50 hours a week or more — compared with less than 3% of workers in Norway and Denmark.
“As long as you have people who are willing to work a hundred hours a week, then we’re going to have this problem,” Glass told me. “But if we can create a culture as the Scandinavians have — where it’s delegitimated to behave that way, like not wearing a mask in the subway — then you really can look at this greater autonomy as something that will truly benefit workers and their families.”