With the COVID-19 pandemic, most on my team (and indeed my entire organization) have been working from home like the rest of the world. Recently, I've been seeing a lot of tweets and articles—and hearing a lot of comments—about "Are we working from home or living at work?"
Forgetting the depressing emotional impact such a question like that has, I started to think about all of the things that have changed for me during the pandemic related to work/life balance (or the lack thereof), and whether or not those changes have occurred for others.
First, let's start with the simple question of lunch. I presented the following poll on Twitter:
For those now working from home, how long is your lunch break?— Michael Szul (@szul) August 19, 2020
Out of 58 respondents (admittedly not a large sample), almost 50% of the people expressed that they ate at their desk during the day. Trends in employee engagement and mental health have consistently recommended that a lunch break be an actual lunch break—even if it's as simple as eating at a table in a different room. The reality is that when you tend to eat at your desk, you tend to work while eating, and ultimately, you get no break at all. Lunch ends up being 10-15 minutes long, and surveys seem to indicate that most do not subtract that additional work from the end of the day—leaving early.
Out of the remaining respondents, almost 30% took the standard hour, while another 20% took 30 minutes. Overall, in discussions with various people now working from home, the trend line seems to show a reduction in time spent on lunch.
Note: Some respondents indicated that fasting was a regular part of their routine, and lunch was often sacrificed as a result of participating in fasting or "One Meal a Day" (OMAD) routines.
Focusing on lunch presents a microcosm of a larger trend. It's very easy to turn on your computer and do work when you've already crossed that working from home barrier. Many probably began working longer hours once relegated to working from home because those that haven't done it before, or those without good company processes, feel a need to do more work in order to make sure they're showing progress. This is a side effect of our tendency to measure productivity by people-in-seats and hours-in-offices. Many employees have extended their work hours during the pandemic (including some weekend hours) in order to ensure that management sees them working, but we also cannot discount the fact that those following safety protocols and remaining socially distant—honestly—are likely to get bored and fall back to work-related tasks. This is especially true if project timelines or financial mitigation impacted any past planned work.
Beyond expanded hours, we also have a reduction in commute time. This benefits most employees greatly because it enables proper breakfast nutrition, longer sleep, and a reduction of physical strain from commuting. As an example, my commute is 1 hour and 15 minutes, so working from home has reduced my time on the road by 2 1/2 hours.
I did, however, notice a significant trend. Although my commute time disappeared, I seem to be using it to justify longer work hours. I still get up at 5:00am, but usually start work shortly thereafter. Previously, I would get home around 5-6pm, so I started stopping work at 5:30pm.
Others inside and outside of the technology industry seem to be doing the same thing. Ultimately, although working from home has presented safety and advantages, working from home is slowly translating to living at work, as hours have increased, breaks have been reduced, and the computer is only 20 feet away from you and already turned on.
Has the dividing line between work/life balance disappeared completely? If so, is our day a collection of fits and stops—being productive when it most makes sense, while taking advantage of an asynchronous schedule? Or are we putting too much of a burden on ourselves and our families by being "always on?"
(Photo of "Working at Home" by Bill Smith)