How has the pandemic changed working lives?

IN THE FUTURE, entire treatises may be written on how the covid-19 pandemic transformed the nature of work. As millions of employees have relocated to living rooms and kitchen tables, pundits are already touting the death of the office, a new era of flexible timetables and mass exoduses from cities. Whether these sweeping predictions prove true remains to be seen. Meanwhile workers’ daily routines have changed in many small-scale, mundane ways. They do not add up to a golden age of white-collar liberation.

Take those staples of modern office routine: meetings, emails and time spent at work. According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard Business School, employees have been attending more meetings—by video conference, rather than in person—sending more emails and putting in more hours since the widespread shift to home-working in March. The team analysed anonymous data, acquired from an information-technology services provider, covering more than 3m people in 16 cities in America, Europe and the Middle East. They found that, compared with pre-lockdown levels, the number of meetings an average worker attends has risen by 13% (see chart). The number of people in the average meeting has risen too, by 13.5%, perhaps because video conferences, unlike office-bound ones, are not constrained by space. One ray of hope is that meetings are shorter, by about 20%, or 12 minutes, on average. Europeans have been keener than Americans to cut meetings short: the trend is most marked in Brussels, Oslo and Zurich.

Surely, the lack of a commute at least means workers have more time to themselves? Alas, no, the researchers find. In a modern variant of Parkinson’s Law, working hours have expanded to soak up the extra minutes, and more. This is true across all 16 cities. On average, people have clocked up an extra 48.5 minutes a day—more than the average commuting time in America or Europe. This is largely because of a rise of 8% in the number of emails sent after normal business hours. (Internal emailing during normal hours has risen too, along with the average number of recipients, presumably as a substitute for talking face to face.) The true figure may be higher. NordVPN, a virtual-private-network provider, reckoned in April that workdays had expanded by an average of three hours. Finished reading this? Good. Don’t you have a meeting to get to?

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