The Blended Workday
In the remote-work era, both firms and workers struggle to define the parameters of a workday.
Are two-hour breaks for errands okay? Can managers text at 10 pm?
By Arianne Cohen
The traditional 9-to-5 workday has
been torn to shreds since the pandemic, with both managers and staffs unclear
on what defines the length and scope
of their roles.
WHY IT MATTERS
Managers say they are frustrated with
not knowing their staff’s schedules, while workers complain of burnout from stretched-out days. Leaders worry that operations
and cultures are suffering.
Firms need to set detailed
expectations for modern workdays,
and significantly increase manager-employee communications.
Certainly, many company leaders and managers have become frustrated by employees’ new penchant for not working during working hours. They look at occupancy numbers, well into the 80 and 90 percent level for some movie theaters and restaurants, and wonder why their offices are only half full. Are their staffs “quiet quitting”? But workers point to the other end of the spectrum, saying their hours have been stretched by endless emails and demands to, say, reinvent the company supply chain. They complain of burnout, and point out that the last two years have proved that their efficiency is not tied to a schedule or office. Return to the office or normal hours? Never.
Ultimately, experts say, a day of reckoning may come, as
the workday shift continues and hours and expectations remain opaque. “Executives’ perception of on
and off are still adjusting very quickly,” says
former CHRO Erika Duncan, a cofounder
of HR consulting company, People
It’s a normal work day for Amanda Moore, marketing director of artificial-grass company Turf Envy. Operating
from home in Florida, she first scans Turf Envy’s social media accounts and looks for questions from the 42
interns she oversees. They ping her queries at all hours. “That’s the deal—it’s unpaid, but they can work day or
night,” she says. She replies to as many as she can. Then begins a phase that wasn’t part of her working days of the
past: laundry. With open time, she piles her teenage son’s clothes into the washing machine, then eyes the stack of dishes in the sink and empties the dishwasher. Next she takes a break from her break to read a chapter of a book, finishing right as her first meeting starts at 11 am.
In general, Moore says, her workdays can be long but include a lot of what she refers to as “in-between times”—not quite work, but not not-work either. She can’t, say, disappear for a hike or round of golf. She’s on the clock. Sorta kinda. After the meeting, she moves her son’s clothes into the dryer. “I don’t know, is this work time?” she asks.
For our parents, grandparents, and their grandparents, showing up at work and laboring from morning until late in the day was the norm. That tradition was disrupted only by the occasional war or earthquake or fire—and even then, the people who came in to clean up the mess re-established the same morning-to-dusk hours. Office days followed suit. Sure, eager executives might come in at dawn or work late into the evening, while others took long lunch breaks. But for as long as any living worker remembers, a “normal” workday lasted from 9 am to 5 pm.
But the world has changed. It started with a once-in-a-
century pandemic, with millions of workers sent home when lockdowns began, only a portion of whom returned to the office. The typical employee schedule is now a macrame
of overlapping work, caretaking, and errands—which has scrambled the business world. C-suites and top managers
find themselves in a struggle over how to define something
as basic as a workday.
Really Work Today?
We wanted to know what day-to-day work looks like for most employees. So we checked in with five workers during a typical week, as they tackled their daily activities, operating on either fully remote or hybrid schedules. They comprised a 23-year-old public relations assistant, a marketing manager, an executive project manager at a nonprofit, the president of a health information company, and the CEO at a staffing company. In this admittedly tiny sample, we found that workers and executives alike now attend to many nonwork activities during the traditional workday—including some activities, such as side gigs or work during unapproved vacations, that might rattle managers at some firms. At the same time, each puts in late and long hours, which can lead to burnout. All said, they get their work done.
Does anyone work 9 to 5 anymore? Yes. We found
that the most junior and senior employees still adhere to a standard 9-to-5 schedule even from home. Senior employees do so out of longtime habit, and because they want to model their company’s expectations. Junior employees do so out of pressure to be present at their desks. “I definitely stay within my 9-to-5,”
says the 23-year-old public relations assistant, who, except for occasional office trips, works from her home in Orlando, Florida. For her, after-hours work
is not really on the table. “If I see an off-hours email pop up, I’ll definitely read it, but I might not respond until 9 am unless it’s truly urgent.” She consistently works hard from 9 to 3 pm, proactively finishing her work early, leaving a light late afternoon. On Fridays, this strategy becomes more explicit, with most
Taylor’s concepts stuck, but were increasingly applied to information workers, who gradually became the majority in the second half of the century. This threw a wrench in any coherent evaluation of workers’ productivity. Today, only one worker in ten does manual work, down by 90 percent since Taylor’s time.
While some professions like lawyers adopted hourly
billing, which allowed them to continue to use the same productivity metric (dollars) as the 1800s industrial magnates, most white-collar professions moved into murkier territory, for good reason: hourly billing incentivized slow work, excess work, and overwork.
Instead, most office towers now overflowed with reports and memos and initiatives that strategy consultant Roger Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, says are hard to measure. What if one choice takes three months? What if it takes two minutes, but is an a-ha moment worth millions? “How much is one choice worth?” he asks.
With no clear answer on that, organizations decided, en masse, that presentism was the best way to indirectly measure output: the worker who showed up at 8 am and turned out the lights every day was obviously the hardest worker. Sitting in a desk chair became proxy for productivity. This led to wild inefficiency, as well as widespread discrimination against caretakers whose commitments curtailed sitting in that chair for eight hours. In one study after another, office workers only “worked” a few hours a
day. Still, so long as people stayed at their desks from 9
to 5, the system ground onward.
Industrialization made the math more complicated. Cotton gins, steamboats, sewing machines and light bulbs meant
that productivity calculations required tracking the cost of that cotton gin, and depreciating it over a number of years, while also calculating rotating shifts of employees, each
with varying speed and skill. Magnates standardized the measurement metric into dollars, for easier apples-to-apples comparisons of, say, the profitability of their salt mine versus their paper mill. This shift to measuring output in dollars—and not mechanization itself—started companies on the path to deeply caring about the morning activities of employees like Amanda Moore. Turn-of-the-20th-century industrial engineer Frederick Taylor, the father of management science, ignited a global obsession with productivity, which he measured by pacing factories with a stopwatch, urging workers to increase their second-by-second output. His landmark 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management outlined a strategy: measure scientifically, design work processes based on those measurements, actively train employees, and then—
this part was key—supervise them. The
days of watch-and-learn training and
chatty afternoons were over.
‘Work-life balance’ is no longer relevant. It’s ‘blended.’”
From the dawn of agriculturalism through the Industrial Revolution and then the Information Age, definitions of workdays changed. Will the remote-work era force another change?
complain they are burned out from it all. “There’s so much going on in our world that it’s hard to not be more stressed and anxious,” says Elise Freedman, leader in Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice. “From what I can see and tell, people are working more, online at 7:30 and working straight till dinner, with a lot more back-to-back meetings on Zoom. People just don’t have that pause time to self-reflect or catch up with friends while driving, so I think we’re all ‘on’ a lot more than before.”
Experts say what has not yet emerged—and is desperately needed—are ground rules for blended work time. Specifically, firms need to create definitions and understandings of common scenarios like in-between time (is it okay to go for a bike ride between meetings?). And family time (is it all right to skip two hours of work to take the kids for ice cream after soccer?). Or are we still following the hour-long-appointments-are-fine rule? And vacation time (is replying to Slack chats while at Disneyland work? Or missing Zoom meetings in a cabin because cell service is weak?). At the root of much of today’s mutual confusion, experts say, is accessibility: What is the reasonable amount of availability for a knowledge worker? And what are unreasonable intrusions by managers on people’s lives?
But change as monumental as this can be challenging, and corporate leaders find that even when staff outputs are fine, it’s frustrating to have little control over simple details like whether an employee picks up the phone at 10 am, or how
to get all of their staff in the same room. They worry that employees are using remote schedules to take unapproved side gigs and vacations, calling in from hotel rooms or airports instead sitting at a desk at home with few distractions. Sacrificed in all this shuffling and tracking
down workers, say managers, is the kind of spontaneity
they once enjoyed with staffers.
“Leaders I’ve spoken with are frustrated when they can’t reach people readily. ‘Who’s where? And when?’” says Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist and partner at Thrive Leadership. “It can feel hard to move quickly and stay aligned with their team.”
The lack of structure has also created a steep learning
curve for some employees. Sure, they have more flexibility, but some say that today’s blended workday can lead to a soul-crushing mix of constant messages and emails, procrastination opportunities, and micromanaging from anxious leaders. Surveys over the past two years have found that anywhere from half to three quarters of workers
With today’s firms turning to remote and hybrid models, presentism is seriously blurred. Only managers with
technology resources can track workers at home—which brings its own privacy concerns—and as many bosses have discovered, following projects and attendance is difficult when so many colleagues are no longer arriving daily. For
many economists, a new era is emerging where measuring inputs (hours worked, memos sent) is being replaced with outputs. Measuring an input is the equivalent of measuring a blueberry pie by how long it takes to bake. As Martin tells it,
the pandemic has refocused attention on outputs. “That’s a good thing,” he says. “For the most part, corporations didn’t
have access to inputs, so they were forced to change.”
HR experts say that cementing these new expectations is best done team by team, through communication. “It’s all
about connection,” says Duncan, the HR consultant. “It can’t be intermittent, only when a boss needs something,
because then people feel tethered to the desk even when they’re not there.” She encourages managers to create
consistent connection and weekly check-ins with staff, as well as structure in which staffers talk amongst each other.
Until then, a morning that Moore describes as reading and doing laundry “on my own time” will continue to be
described by other bosses as “wondering where Amanda is” or “hoping she replies soon” or “missing in action.”
people clocking out midafternoon when
the week’s work is done. “There’s an unspoken understanding that that’s what everyone does,” she says. The employees who deviated the most from 9 to 5 were two midlevel employees—a marketing manager and executive project manager—both parents. Over the course of two weeks, they both worked in pockets of time from 5:30 am until 11 pm, one starting at dawn if she happened to be awake and the other sometimes aborting work when feeling groggy. The latter described one afternoon: “My brain was not working as best it could, and it was rainy and gross out, so I stepped away and did some homework with my kids, and then went back to it, and ended up working on and off until 6 pm.” That’s an 11.5-hour day, a far longer stretch than typical office dwellers.
was actually more efficient than normal, laser-focusing on work tasks. Leaders might be appeased by the detail that she, like most traveling employees, took days off mid-trip, Friday to Tuesday, and those were the true vacation days. She says that on her off-site days, it’s most effective to schedule her workload a little differently, in blocks of similar work, such as back-to-back meetings followed by two to four research tasks. This is more efficient, because she can bang out work while the kids spend time with their grandparents. “When I have sporadic meetings, it’s harder to juggle,” she says. In return, she is hugely appreciative of her employer, and expresses loyalty. “They’ve done a really great job of allowing me to meet my family’s needs.”
Is she really working from the Bahamas or the Azores? Many managers are not yet comfortable with employees logging hours from vacation destinations, particularly when the worker isn’t using a vacation day. We followed Howe to Rhode Island, where she visited in-laws with her children and husband, far from her Lynchburg, Virginia, homebase. “It’s nice. I end up working longer hours because it’s more difficult to
hyperfocus, but each night feels like a
mini-vacation,” she says. She typically
spreads her work day out over 10.5
hours, and mixes in family time. This
can be unnerving for managers, but
Howe worked quite consistently
throughout her trip, and said she
hours from 4:30 to 6 pm, which lengthened his work
day by 90 minutes. Over a three-day weekend, he put in three five-hour consulting jags, including on his birthday, leading to a 15-day period in which he worked every
day. Cameron Howe, the executive project manager of HumanKind, likes to complete 10 to 20 hours of contract work per month. The meetings tend to be brief, and she logs them during her lunch break, evenings, weekends, or paid time off. “The extra income
is important, because I’ve got
two kids and they’re expensive.
But in this extra job, I get to
pick the tasks that I really
enjoy, like web design, which
I’m not formally trained in.
I get to play around.”
Inflation is raging, putting financial pressure on even well-compensated employees, especially those supporting families. We were surprised to discover that three of our five workers maintained lucrative side hustles that help pay for apartments and kids and vacations. (Many companies don’t allow such work, but our group said they had been approved so long as their work was not affected.) Their routine, they said, was to slide meetings for these side gigs between their main duties, and then to make up the time by logging longer evenings and weekends. Calloway Cook, president of Illuminate Labs, says he is frequently sought out for SEO consulting because of his own success in building heavy traffic to his company’s website. “I don’t want to turn down work, because it’s so lucrative on a per-hour basis,” he says. One Thursday he logged consulting
full day at work. “I just push everything forward or back, depending on when I wake up.” That Thursday, he finished work around midnight. A hazard, of course, is that his just-work-late-at-night strategy requires him to be disciplined about not texting employees at 11 pm.
Managers everywhere complain that they can’t reach their employees. Where are they? Aren’t they supposed to be working? Pre-pandemic, employees were more or less paid to be physically present, and were dependably at their desks, rarely gone for more than an hour. But the demands of the pandemic forced staffers to work far beyond usual hours—with many trying to fit in extracurriculars during “regular” hours. The habit continues to this day, with Cook, for example, golfing for several hours with his dad on a recent Thursday afternoon. “It was a super nice chunk of the day, and definitely worth it,” he says. He golfs twice a month, and has learned to blend golf with a full day at work. “I just push everything forward or back, depending on when I wake up.” That Thursday, he finished work around midnight. A hazard, of course, is that his just-work-late-at-night strategy requires him to
be disciplined about not texting employees at 11 pm.
tangible tasks as part of the meeting. Howe spends a lot of time preparing for meetings, and believes that they are only a good use of her time if she’s paying
full attention. “If the meeting is a data dump that’s
not specific to my projects, I might minimally respond to an email,” she says. But otherwise, she likes to
think that the ideas she generates during meetings
are valuable, and that she builds positive working
relationships by demonstrating that she values
coworkers and their time. “I try to make
meetings as useful as I can, because I don’t
want to put my kids to bed at night and
need to go pull out my laptop.”
With the proliferation of online meetings, workers
say that multitasking during meetings is essential.
We found rampant multitasking by lower-ranking employees. “Otherwise I’d never finish!” says Amanda Moore, the marketing director. “I always work on projects from the team that’s meeting.” For example, if a meeting discusses how captions and imagery should look, she’ll tweak those captions and images during the meeting. She is thrilled that the expectation
of constant eye contact during meetings has dissipated over time. Employees for whom
the meetings themselves are their output
behave differently: they try to accomplish