The new normal of hybrid working has upsides and downsides.
Remote workers are saving hours per week that they used to spend on commuting and other activities related to going out into the world. But they are devoting a lot of that new spare time sitting in front of their computers.
An economist who saw the wave of remote work coming for a long time is fascinated by the new patterns he sees emerging.
Nicholas Bloom of Stanford has been one of the economics profession’s foremost experts on remote work since long before the pandemic, and he’s been a leading voice decoding the new normal since 2020. He told Fortune that hybrid work means two totally different kinds of workday: one for home and one for the office.
Bloom and fellow economists from MIT, the University of Chicago, and Mexico’s ITAM have been conducting an ongoing study based on monthly data from almost 4,000 participants since May 2020. The latest survey results show the demise of commuting has saved workers nearly six hours per week, and he’s surprised at how people are spending all that time.
Bloom crunched the January survey numbers in a recent Twitter post. Pandemic habits give Americans around 70 minutes of extra free time a day. The lion’s share of this, around 60 minutes, comes from getting rid of commuting, but workers have also spent around nine minutes less on average doing daily activities such as grooming or picking out fresh clothes.
“You can see people spend about half their saved commute on work,” Bloom told Fortune, “but there is also evidence that on work-from-home days they tend to take more breaks for activities” such as picking up their kids, shopping, going to the gym, and seeing the dentist.
Compared to the 44% of respondents who put on makeup when they traveled to work, only 27% would do so when working from home. Similarly, while 93.7% of in-office workers would wear fresh clothes to work, this number dropped to 71.5% for at-home workers. Thankfully, almost everyone still seems to be brushing their teeth, the survey confirms.
The latest data builds on evidence reported by the authors in a working paper from last year, which found that Americans were rededicating around 35% of their savings in commute time to their jobs.
Multiple studies since the pandemic began indicated that workweeks were becoming longer, on average, as employees no longer had the same chance to disconnect from their work that an office-to-home trip provides. But the authors of the recently updated study do not believe that all of these extra hours are spent on our jobs.
Both Bloom and Jose Maria Barrero of ITAM agreed that the extra work hours observed during work-from-home days more or less canceled out when considering the time spent at home doing household and family chores, and the time workers tend to spend not working when socializing in the office.
“What I suspect is if you took out all the time at work talking about the Super Bowl, politics, your weekend, etc., working from home would involve more actual working minutes,” Bloom said, adding that’s one reason why working from home is associated with higher productivity.
The survey indicates that more workers are readying themselves for a hybrid work model sooner rather than later. The study’s September results found that workers desired on average 2.29 days to work from home after the pandemic, down from 2.45 in the second half of 2020.
When this happens, the study’s authors believe that the habits workers have adopted during the work-from-home era will stay with us in one way or another.
“[These] habits are going to stick on the days you work from home,” Barrero told Fortune. “I suspect that the days you go into the office are days where you will have meetings and other interactions, but even these will be more flexible. If you have a later meeting, you can go into the office at 10, avoid commuting hours, and still take your child to school.”
The hybrid way of working will mean two completely different ways of getting things done: the remote days when you mix staring at your screen with your miscellaneous chores, and the office days when you comb your hair and hold a bunch of meetings. The new normal is coming on so fast it might already be here.
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