Employer's Perspective: Does longer hours always mean a WFH employee is overworked?
I just read one of the dozens of recent HR articles with attention-grabbing headlines around the right to disconnect and unpaid overtime accumulated by overworked employees working from home. That employers are setting unreasonable always-on expectations that are creating mental illness and serve only to increase their own profits.
It prompted me to finally write this article that considers another angle for why some of us working from home are working beyond regular business hours and are feeling stressed.
The following is not meant to suggest that my commentary is applicable to all employees. It is not. There is a long list of variations that apply to individual circumstances and positions.
I'm also not suggesting that employers who take advantage of employees don't exist. They do.
But as with any article, it's irresponsible and oversimplifying the narrative without considering other possible reasons behind the requirement for what I am now calling an 'extended work day', versus the dramatic headlines that read: 'Overworked: Employers expecting Longer Hours'.
We're also doing employees a disservice, particularly more junior inexperienced WFH workers, by not providing them with all possible scenarios and the power and control to change their own situations.
I'm suggesting that we all take an honest look at our own behavior during the work day and determine who's ultimately responsible for our extended hours. Unlike most articles out there, this article focuses on our individual responsibility, but the final answer may very well be: both the employer and employee.
Are we all cut out to work from home?
Our WFH work day has become very flexible, but are we all built to properly manage and take personal responsibility for that newly-found freedom?
I would argue, no. ConnectsUs HR has been 100% virtually operated since 2004 and I've hired hundreds of employees in my career, including WFH positions. After trial and error over 3+ decades, I've witnessed first hand that most new hires (and self-employed contract service providers) are not cut out for managing the freedom and flexibility that comes with working remotely. Some also cannot handle the isolation and lack of buzz. I have learned to dig deep during the interview process and look for the traits required to successfully work from home. But that's another article.
Intentional Distractions on the Rise
Recent studies point to what we intuitively already know. Those of us who work from home lose a significant number of work hours to avoidable distractions and demands that wouldn’t arise if we were at the office.
Let's be clear. There's a distinction between intentional and non-avoidable personal distractions.
Construction noise, taking care of a sick loved-one, a less-than-ideal home office set up, emergencies, and depression fall into the 'non-avoidable' distractions category.
Intentional distractions are those we choose to engage in voluntarily and are the ones I'm referring to here. They come in many forms including messaging our friends and family, distributing and receiving those cute videos and Trump memes. Flirting online. Shopping. Banking. Creating Pinterest boards. Scrolling and commenting on social media. Walking the dog. Yoga class. Perhaps attending to that new pandemic hobby we've picked up, maybe learning the guitar? Art? Baking?
Or running errands? Prepping dinner. Or for some of us, watching YouTube, Netflix, or taking a nap.
Perhaps we intentionally give in to pleasurable distractions more easily to try to take the edge off the pandemic. Fair enough. But do we understand how often and how many hours we're spending on succumbing to them?
The True Costs of Distractions at Work
Try a little experiment. Text a cute dog video to 3 people you know are working from home right now. How long will it take for you to get a response?
All hours are not equal. The cost of an interruption far exceeds the time spent on the interruption itself. Each interruption means that we need an additional 23 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds to be exact) to mentally settle back into the original task (science). Now multiply that by 20 such interruptions in a day - just on the messaging front alone.
A New Kind of Blurred Work Day
The work day has changed and for many of us, the work day has extended. But are we really working harder and longer? Or is working longer being confused with an extended work day because we are blurring the lines with weaving in and out of work and non-work activities during regular business hours.
At the end of regular business hours, some of us may find that we have not met deadlines or produced tangible results - which causes us anxiety. Then that email comes in from a co-worker at 7 pm (perhaps because they walked their dog at 2 pm for an hour after indulging in some online shopping). This incoming email creates us more stress and a tendency to want to blame someone else for our inability to disconnect from work. We may not be conscious of the dozens of mini and not-so-mini interruptions and breaks we've engaged in during the day.
Or maybe some of us are aware of our interruptions and justify them by telling ourselves that we'll make up for it by working later. And when later comes, we choose instead to disconnect - telling ourselves we'll make up for it by working longer tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes... <insert accumulated mounting stress>.
It's easy to jump to conclusions and feel violated after tallying the total hours between the start and end times of our extended work days, particularly when we're bombarded with messages about unreasonable employers. Joining the march of blame and pointing the finger at our employers for our longer hours makes us feel better and alleviates some of that stress. Blaming others and labeling ourselves a victim always does. But it's short lived and doesn't offer a solution if the problem lies in the way we are managing our individual work day.
Bottom line, it's possible that we may not be working longer hours at all. Maybe some of us are choosing to extend our workday so that we can accommodate the flexibility many of us crave? Some of us may be checking off items from our personal to-do list during the day so they won't have to be executed later. All good and we need to own that and take personal responsibility. Our interruptions (read: the choices we make) are not owed to us, nor are they entitlements or additional employer perks if we expect to end our work day at 4:30. It's simply unreasonable to think (and for headlines to report) that the employer needs to recognize this type of extended workday as overwork or overtime.
Simple Tools That May Help
Q: What's a rant article without a solution?
A: Just a rant.
In this case, we have 3 tools that may be helpful to focus on what's important.
Right to Disconnect Policy
Many jurisdictions are considering implementing Right to Disconnect legislation. ConnectsUs HR just recently released a Right To Disconnect Policy as an excerpt of our Employee Handbooks, which I personally believe is every employee's right.
It is written so that the employees’ rights are preserved, but also communicates the employer's expectation for productivity during regular business hours.
Weekly Status Report
At ConnectsUs HR, I don't care if someone spends a big part (or all) of their work day on personal activities. I'm happy that your dog is getting walked and that you're able to prep a good meal for your family during business hours. But I do care about results and providing value to the business.
I only spend 5 minutes a week reviewing a few documents that tells me all I need to know about productivity. All staff complete weekly status reports that report on our accomplishments and results. That's it. Nothing else.
It’s easy to say that I’ve been in front of my screen for 35 hours this week, but it’s a different ballgame when I have to document what exactly was achieved during my 35 hours.
The ultimate question is “What value did I create for the business in exchange for the $1,000 I was paid this week?” It's a fair question. You're not being micromanaged and you're not asked to fill out timesheets, when you worked, or where. With status reports, we bypass all the unimportant details and skip right to the meat: Results.
Work from Home Policy & Agreement
A Work from Home Policy and Agreement has become a necessary business tool. While remote work can have a positive impact on your business and people, it does bring new challenges and a greater potential for unclear expectations and miscommunication. Just like any policy in the business world, remote working can suffer when employees don’t have guidelines to follow.
Work from Home Articles
Our library of Work From Home articles.
A few take-aways here:
- The employer has a right to expect employees to provide a productive 8 hours a day of services and results.
- The employee has a right to disconnect after putting in 8 hours of work.
- Employers need to be on the look out for struggling WFH employees and engage in open and safe communication to help solve some of their challenges. Provide them with time management training or commit to spending the time to find out why they are feeling overworked and provide them with the support they need.
- We all want flexibility, but that means we need to be flexible on all fronts - meaning that if we're not productive during regular working hours, we need to make up the time. And newsflash, that's not overtime and it's not employer abuse.
- We may want to be careful about continuing to report a one-sided story about who's to blame for longer hours. Employers may one day be required by law to implement more stringent time recording protocols, or enforce strict working hour policies accompanied with monitoring productivity tools, which I don't think any of us want.