What Time Does Remote Work Start—or End?

Most companies have not set new norms for working at home, creating frustrations for managers and workers alike. 

The team leader has been productive working from home, but his manager remains frustrated. The issue is response time to emails and calls. The team leader walks his dog at 9 AM and hits the gym at 11 AM—which means the manager often has to wait one to two hours for a response. This delays the manager’s other projects. Is this a problem?

As more companies settle into hybrid and remote-work arrangements for at least some staff members, the so-called blended workday that many people have adopted is creating frustration for managers and staffers alike. A new study from Microsoft says that “productivity paranoia” is setting in, with leaders suspecting that their teams are less productive when remote and workers saying their days are too long. One issue: most firms have still not adopted norms around work-from-home expectations. “If you’re not explicit, and someone’s not there, it creates delays and loops, or you can’t pull people together quickly,” says Nathan Blain, global lead for optimizing people costs at Korn Ferry. “The more you can eliminate those, the better off you are.”

The looser arrangements around working from home have led to more late-night correspondence and burned-out workers. But managers may be correct in worrying that on average, many employees log fewer hours at their home desks. The 2021 American Time Use Survey found that workers averaged 7.8 hours of work per day in the office, but only 5.6 hours at home. Whether that affects overall productivity is unclear; the study’s findings are mixed.

For managers, the challenge comes with the many previously unscheduled developments during the workday: perhaps they needs quick edits on a document, or an answer on a project’s status. Employees may commonly make themselves readily available to bosses, but can forget to extend the same courtesy to teammates. Some says that in-person gatherings have also become less organized. “We’ve taken up bad habits,” says Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. Previously, workers would batch tasks and plan for an in-person stand-up meeting with the boss every Wednesday. “Now we’ve gotten lazy, so when we do get into a room, we waste time.”

The solutions are complex. Blain sees a lot of organizations setting the expectation that staffers be available from 9 AM to 5 PM, and suggests that workers need to let managers and teammates know—whether via Slack or an email away message—if they’re unavailable for longer than an hour. “Organizations are certainly flexible, but the challenge for employees is making sure they communicate,” says Blain.

A good management rule of thumb, says Ron Porter, senior client partner in the Global Human Resources Center of Excellence at Korn Ferry, is to remind teams that work takes priority, including deadlines and meetings. But if an employee has a break between meetings and no pressing work to do, she should feel free to use the time as she pleases. Availability during normal business hours should also be clearly defined, he says: perhaps that would mean requiring a response within 15 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour, depending on the role. “It’s up to employees to decide when and where they want to get that work done, but they need to be responsive,” says Porter.

Another strategy, say experts, is to try to normalize absences that could otherwise raise eyebrows. Rather than disappearing to exercise at random intervals, a manager might say, “Every Tuesday, I go to the gym from 12 to 2:30, and it really de-stresses me.” A manager’s attention, say experts, should not be on the specifics of employees’ nonwork activities, but instead on their professional output and professionalism.

Once those norms are set, the real challenge becomes retaining engagement, says Tierney Remick, vice chairman and co-leader of the Global Board and CEO practice at Korn Ferry. The goal is for teammates to be both present and prepared for important moments of collaboration and strategizing. “The real question we want to be asking,” says Remick, “is how can leaders manage in new hybrid environments in ways that make people feel engaged and collaborative?”