The COVID-19 pandemic sent large numbers of workers whose jobs permitted it into working from home. At the peak more than 60% of U.S. workers worked remotely. Working from home blurs the boundaries between work and personal lives. We find, surprisingly, that remote work brought with it both more and fewer hours, but this varied depending on family care responsibilities as well as gender, race, and class.
Work hours are important because working time is a fundamental aspect of working conditions associated with pay and status, family and personal lives, as well as health and well-being. Given the currently “frighteningly high levels” of burnout among U.S. workers, it becomes all the more important to understand how working from home affects hours worked.
In a recently published study, we investigate how work hours changed as women and men moved to remote working conditions, and how remote workers themselves account for increases, decreases, or stability in their work hours. We find different experiences for women and men, as well as at the intersections of gender with caregiving obligations, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Using survey data from a nationally representative sample of 3,017 remote workers, as well as qualitative data from 231 remote workers—collected in October 2020—our study reveals a continuation and in some cases even widening of pre-pandemic disparities in work hours. Remote working women are more likely to experience change rather than stability in work hours. But these changes have occurred in both directions, and women remote workers who see a major increase in their hours are different from women remote workers who see a major decrease in terms of their family caregiving obligations, race and ethnicity, and class.
Women more likely to experience change in hours as they move to working from home
Slightly more than half of our remote worker sample report their work hours remain the same as before COVID-19. The other half are more or less evenly split between increased (25%) and decreased (23%) work hours.
Women are more likely than men to experience change—either a major decrease or a major increase in work hours when they shift to remote work. Men seem to have more control over the hours they work. Many remote working men report they made a deliberate decision to work the same hours in order to “keep a sense of normalcy” or to “respect the working hours.” Men also describe working less because of increased productivity in the face of fewer interruptions. In other words, they are working less or the same hours because they feel in control of their time.
Caregiving responsibilities can lead to both decreased and increased hours—depending on how heavy they are
Remote workers with heavy caregiving obligations—women and men sandwiched between childcare and elder care responsibilities, as well as women (but not men) with pre-school children—are the most likely to scale back working hours. This is consistent with the reality that women juggling paid work and care work often put their jobs on the back burner by reducing their work hours. Note that remote working men caring for both minor children and ailing older relatives also tend to scale back their hours on the job.
When caring obligations are not as heavy—having older children at home or caring for adults (but not both)—remote working women are more likely to experience a major increase in their work hours. Our qualitative data show that these women work longer to make up for any interruption that comes with caring while working from home. Some mothers also report beginning to work non-conventional hours such as in the evening.
Minority women and men experience the transition to remote work differently
Changes in work hours also differ by the combination of race/ethnicity and gender. Remote working Black women are most likely to see a substantial increase in work hours. By contrast, Hispanic women and Black men are the most likely to report a reduction in their work hours.
It is possible occupational segregation accounts for the divergent findings by race/ethnicity and gender. There are intersecting gender and race/ethnic differences in types of occupations and industries, along with selection disparities in people in telecommute-capable jobs. Remotely working minority workers, especially women, likely have jobs with lower status and less control. They are therefore more susceptible to the fluctuations in hours as they shift to remote work.
Educated workers more likely to increase and less-educated workers more likely to decrease work hours —but only among women
Our survey shows that women with an advanced degree and women managers are the most likely to report a considerable increase in work hours. Unlikely their male counterparts who are more likely to have a spouse responsible for the home front, high-socioeconomic status (SES) women often need to manage housework and childcare even as their high organizational positions may not allow them to easily scale back.
Remote working women with less education, by contrast, are more likely to see their hours decline. These workers report that, the economic shutdown and reduced market demands had tremendous negative impacts on their hours. Combined, we find a widening disparity in hours worked by social class, with those already working long hours pre-pandemic working even longer when working at home and vice versa, especially among women.
Taken together, our research reveals that work time disparities in the time of COVID-19 reflect a cumulative process. Long-existing structural inequalities continue to shape labor market advantages and disadvantages in the pandemic era, even when work locations change. With the pandemic now entering its third year, some forms of remote and hybrid work are likely here to stay. It is increasingly clear that these new modes of work are transforming, in very probably irreversible ways, the social organization, cultures, and human meanings of work, but existing disparities for disadvantaged subgroups endure.
Wen Fan and Phyllis Moen. “Working More, Less or the Same During COVID-19? A Mixed Method, Intersectional Analysis of Remote Workers” in Work and Occupations 2022.
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