For home-workers, last year has been a blur of Zoom calls, late night emails and backache from being hunched over kitchen table laptops. Yet despite this, the prevailing view of remote working as an excuse to kick back and get stuck into daytime TV.
Recently, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism for suggesting people "have had quite a few days off" during the pandemic, as the government pushed for workers to prepare to get back to their workplaces.
During the virtual Conservative spring forum, in which he talked about the Government’s roadmap for easing restrictions, he said UK chancellor Rishi Sunak was ‘pretty keen’ for people to get back into their offices after months of working from home.
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He went on: “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”
Tactlessness aside, the problem is that this simply isn’t true. Multiple studies have found that during the pandemic, remote workers are spending longer at their desks than before the COVID-19 crisis.
In fact, the average length of time an employee spends working from home in the UK has increased by more than two hours a day since the coronavirus crisis, according to data from the business support company NordVPN Teams. Overall, the researchers found, remote workers are staying logged onto their computers until 8pm - before starting early again the following day.
When researchers at LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation surveyed 2,000 people last year, they found the average UK workers had been putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime a month since the pandemic started. In September, an analysis of the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in 16 global cities by Harvard Business School found that the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes during the early weeks of the pandemic. Moreover, employees also participated in more meetings, too.
A far cry from shirking their responsibilities, remote workers have reported increased workloads since transitioning to home-working.
People are also spending far less time grabbing coffee and chatting to their colleagues during their working days, with one 2020 study suggesting that these so-called “microbreaks” have decreased for 95% of employees working from home.
There are a multitude of reasons why remote workers are burning the candle at both ends. With so many people facing redundancy, those still working may well be putting in excessive overtime to prove their worth to their employers. As a result, remote working during a pandemic has encouraged a culture of so-called e-presenteeism, where workers feel they should be available 24/7 — despite the risks to their health and wellbeing.
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The shift away from the office has also blurred the work-life boundary beyond recognition. Technologies and advancements in digital communications had already eroded the difference for many people, but Covid put the ‘always-on’ culture into overdrive. The workday has been lengthened, with more people sending emails into the night.
It’s not just about hours worked, however. According to a Talk Talk survey of more than 1,000 people, 58% said they had been more productive as a result of working from home. Research conducted prior to the pandemic has shown how remote working can boost worker output, by eliminating workplace distractions like background noise and interruptions from coworkers.
Of course, there are notable challenges posed when it comes to remote working during a pandemic. The underlying hum of anxiety that comes with living through a global health crisis has undermined engagement with work, leading many to feel unmotivated and isolated. And as parents will attest, working from home alongside school and nursery closures is not easy.
READ MORE: Are remote workers bottling up their stress?
Over the past year, the Government advice has been to work from home where possible, to avoid unwittingly spreading COVID-19 to colleagues. At the moment, this continues to be the official line - which isn’t expected to change in the coming weeks.
Scientists have also warned that it is too early to be heading back to places of work, which may well undermine progress made by the vaccine rollout. As we know, transmission is higher when people gather indoors for prolonged periods of time, such as offices.
Remote workers have been working hard - and under challenging conditions — for months. And the pandemic is far from over. So encouraging people to get back to the office isn’t just irresponsible, it’s insulting too. Instead of reinforcing the idea that work can only take place in an office, we should be focusing on how to improve remote working cultures for the better.
Watch: Mental health professionals advise hybrid approach when returning to working in an office