Working 9 to 2, and Again After Dinner

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For many remote workers, 9 to 5 has changed to something more fragmented. A typical schedule might look more like 9 to 2, and then 7 to 10. Then sometimes another five minutes, wherever you can squeeze them in.

When the coronavirus upended the workplace in 2020, leaving roughly 50 million people working from home by that May, the workday as we knew it went through radical changes, too. Mornings became less harried. Afternoons became child care time. Some added a third shift to their evenings, what Microsoft researchers call the “third peak” of productivity, following the midmorning and after-lunch crunches. With 10 percent of Americans still working from home and some businesses embracing remote work permanently, companies are scrambling to adjust to a new understanding of working hours.

“What we used to think of as traditional work — very specific location, very specific ways of working together, very well-defined work metrics — those are changing,” said Javier Hernandez, a researcher in Microsoft’s human understanding and empathy group. “There’s the opportunity for flexibility. There’s also the opportunity to make us miserable.”

The more scattered approach to work scheduling has created enormous upsides for parents, along with some new sources of stress. What’s clear is the shift: The workday, when charted out, has started to look less like a single mountain to scale, and more like a mountain range.

Mornings used to mean bleary-eyed showers. Makeup to hide the under-eye bags. Dashing to the door, disgruntled children in tow. For remote workers, that agitation went the way of their commutes.

6:30 a.m. When Jennifer DeVito, 33, hears her alarm go off, she feels momentary panic — a relic of prepandemic times, when she would have been up by 4:10 to catch a shuttle from Sacramento to Santa Clara, Calif., where she works at a tech company. Freed of her commute, like so many Americans who used to devote about 54 minutes to daily transit, she can now steal more sleep.

“The pressure to be utilizing every single second is gone,” Ms. DeVito said. “I feel more like myself than I have in a long time.”

7:05 a.m. Kristen Hermanson doesn’t want her children to feel that they’re waking up on the wrong side of the bed, so she tries to bring some cheer into their mornings by rubbing their backs and tickling their feet. Her son, who has autism, is finnicky about breakfast, but he devours her bacon. She drops her children at school by 8:02, and then goes for a jog before her calls start at 9 a.m.

“I get almost eight hours of sleep a night!” Ms. Hermanson, who works in entertainment in Los Angeles, said. “That is unheard-of. My doctor was always telling me, ‘You’ve got to get more sleep.’”

7:30 a.m. Michelle Flamer, 65, who works for the city government of Philadelphia, sometimes wanders to her kitchen after waking up and immediately starts working. Why not? She’s not leaving the house, so there’s no need to shower yet. Sometimes she thinks, bemused, about all the tasks that used to fit into her morning, like reading Bible devotionals, feeding her pets and hopping on the train. “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish getting up around 6:30 and running out the door a little before 9,” she said with a chuckle.

10 a.m. For many work-from-home parents, especially mothers, the midmorning hours are a period of intense productivity.

“In the morning I can just bang things out,” said Laura Bisberg, 37, who works at a university press in New York. “My energy starts flagging after lunch.”

Plenty of remote workers, like Ms. Bisberg, found that their rhythms of productivity are more idiosyncratic than they had ever allowed themselves to think possible. Some people are sharpest early in the day, fueled by caffeine and ready to pore over spreadsheets; others are virtually useless until the sun starts to dip.

Working from home has meant more freedom to pay attention to those patterns, and 80 percent of remote and hybrid workers say they’re equally or more productive outside the office than they were in the office, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index.

11:30 a.m. The frenzy of meetings is in full swing. Across companies, the pandemic has been accompanied by a meeting creep. Microsoft Teams users, for example, saw the time they spent in meetings each week climb by over 250 percent since March 2020. The increase could be driven by a genuine desire by employers to keep colleagues connected, and maybe also, some workers speculate, by managers anxious to keep tabs on how people are spending their time.

“People sort of went nuts,” Ms. Flamer said. “There can be a day when I have four consecutive hours of meetings.”

For parents, afternoons in the office often meant high-pressure questions: Could you sneak out in time for school pickup? Working from home, and doing child care after lunch, has reinforced a sense that the office wasn’t suited to caregiving needs. “It’s structured around the expectation that people don’t have a family,” said Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. “We’ve seen dogs and kids wandering across people’s screens. They’re banished again when you go back to working at work.”

2:50 p.m. The best part of logging off to handle school pickup, for Ms. Hermanson, is the moment she hears her son shout: “Mommy, you’re here!” She asks about his classes: “What did you learn? Who did you play with?” In prepandemic times, she had to wait until evening to ask how he was doing, and the responses were monosyllabic: “Fine.”

3:15 p.m. The first shift of Ms. Bisberg’s workday is over. Her children are home from school and she has hit her post-lunch slump, so she turns her attention to games. Her children love to play Silly Street, which involves performing a series of goofy tasks — act like a monkey, give everyone in the room a high-five — a stark shift from the type of assignments that filled her office afternoons.

“I used to work very hard to compartmentalize,” Ms. Bisberg said. “When I was at work, I wasn’t thinking about the kids. The second I would leave I was like, ‘OK, I’m getting home to my kids.’ I didn’t bring any work into my home life and I didn’t bring any home into my work life. Now everything is more mixed together.”

4:30 p.m. Kathryn Beaumont Murphy, 47, an attorney in Philadelphia, now occasionally accepts afternoon car pool duties. Sure, she’s simultaneously scrolling through emails in a parking lot. Her children complain that she spends all her time plugged into work, but Ms. Beaumont Murphy is relieved that at least they’re physically spending time together.

“The biggest point of tension is that my kids say, ‘You’re always working,’” she said. “Whereas I feel like I’m much more focused on work when I’m in the office.”

For some workers, commuting back home at the end of the day used to mean putting up a job-life firewall: devices were turned off, Netflix was turned on. Now that home is the office, work can easily seep through the cracks.

7:30 p.m. The afternoons and evenings blur together for Ms. Flamer. Her workday is sometimes 13 or 14 hours long. She used to get up from her office desk before 6:30 to catch the train home. Now, because she is seated in her kitchen, there is no obvious point at which to shut down her computer.

8:45 p.m. Ms. Bisberg puts her children to bed and sits down for the final shift of her workday. Some of her teammates are online as well.

“At one point I sent an email late at night and got a response,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘You know I’m doing this weird schedule, but you don’t need to write back.’”

Her colleague explained that she, too, was working the strange hours of a work-from-home mother: “I was like ‘OK,’” Ms. Bisberg said. “‘Then I accept your 10 p.m. email.’”

This late-evening activity is that so-called third peak: the extra shift put in by people who either took a break earlier in the day for child care or simply feel compelled to keep sending emails because their inboxes continue to ding. Time spent working after traditional hours has grown 28 percent since March 2020, according to data from Microsoft Teams users, and weekend work has increased 14 percent.

Several employers have set guardrails. Teams at Microsoft, for example, encourage managers to set agreements on every person’s working hours. Cali Williams Yost, founder of a workplace strategy group, advises bosses to sit down with their employees to establish when people are expected to be available for meetings, emails and solo work.

“Unless we’re intentionally coordinating our rhythms, it could end up that everybody’s working all the time,” Ms. Yost said.

In some cases, workers have had to initiate those sticky conversations themselves. “It was very hard to draw a line in the sand,” said Stephen Luke Todd, 27, an engineer, recalling an expectation at his previous remote job that he answer messages around the clock. “I felt like I had to articulate boundaries to my boss.”

For some people, the new workday runs 9 a.m. to nearly 5 a.m.

2:45 a.m. Ms. Beaumont Murphy recently found herself awake in the middle of the night on a Tuesday, writing colleagues an email, which she scheduled to send at 8 a.m. She no longer feels the pressure to spring out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to work out. But she also doesn’t feel capable of putting her work away at the end of the day. Come to think of it, when is the end of the day?

7:30 a.m. Ms. DeVito logs on. She’s faced with a deluge of 30 emails that had been sent overnight.

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