On the Clock but Off the Job

Remote workers admit they aren’t working 25% of the time, confirming managers’ biggest worry. How to tell who is and who isn’t burning the midnight oil. 

After two years of hybrid work arrangements, the manager was pretty sure that some team members weren’t logging in on Tuesday afternoons. And Wednesday middays. And Thursday mornings.

This irked the manager. A lot. After all, he had been showing up at his office from 9 to 5 every weekday for thirty years.

Since the pandemic began, survey after survey has shown that many remote employees are putting in more hours than ever before—to the point of developing stress-related illnesses. But as these arrangements become permanent, experts say many high-level corporate leaders are beginning to wonder about their workers’ schedules. A recent survey by Jobist confirms some of managers’ worst suspicions.

Employees in the survey admit that they spend an average of 9 hours weekly—nearly 25% of their workweek—filling time “on the clock” with everything from cooking to watching TV to ordering online. Nearly eight in ten remote workers also admitted to using “white lies” to create the appearance of working, from pretending they’re busy to saying they’re “working on that right now.” As Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory, sees it, “Managers are right to be concerned. They may have productivity questions as we move into a remote work environment.”

The same survey found that nearly 70 percent of workers thought their productivity had improved since they began working from home. And the freedom to slack off apparently hasn’t reduced stress, which some surveys suggest affects nine out of ten workers. But managers say job responsibilities vary so greatly that measuring people remotely is tough. Some hold roles with fewer tangible deliverables, and enjoy looser connections to their laptops. “An organization might be working some people very hard, and it’s not fair or equitable to not require a consistent level of effort from all of our team members,” says Royal.

Experts caution that misperceptions here are both likely and dangerous. “People make assumptions about other people’s work lives, and assume that others work half as much, but get paid as much or more,” says Craig Kamins, senior client partner in the Healthcare practice at Korn Ferry. It’s a grass-is-always-greener mentality. “Remote work adds a whole new layer to it,” he says. He adds that regular conversations with teammates can defuse these misunderstandings, as staffers will naturally discuss where they are and what they’re working on.

As a first step, Elise Freedman, Workforce Transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry, suggests employers confirm what, exactly, is happening. “Maybe there are some days that are a little heavier, and the next day, employees handle personal tasks,” she says. If that’s the case, it might appear as if someone is slacking off two days a week, but they still could be logging many hours legitimately. If an employer’s inquiries reveal concerns, Freedman suggests reconsidering both workload distribution and job design, which will involve both the worker in question and their teammates.

Expectations should be clear and transparent, says Royal, and reinforced—not just deadlines, but also details like availability for collaboration and communication, as well as a common understanding of what kind of flexibility is okay. “It’s about holding people accountable for deliverables, rather than trying to clamp down and monitor activity,” says Royal, “so you don’t undercut the remote flexibility that people really appreciate.”