After two years of working from home, I don’t have one unified period of getting things done. I have several mini periods. Work isn’t a contiguous landmass of focus; it’s more like an archipelago of productivity amid a sea of chores, meals, mental breaks, and other responsibilities.
In particular, I’ve noticed a new island of work at the end of the day. Sometime around 9 p.m., I’ll open my computer and see that I have about a dozen urgent-ish emails and Slack messages. So, while in front of the television or with a podcast playing in the background, I’ll spend a late-night hour or more replying to these messages, typing the same intro over and over: “Sorry for the delay …” “Oops, I missed this …” “Hey, just seeing that you …”
Apparently I’m not alone. Last week, Microsoft published a study that offers an eerie reflection of my working life. Traditionally, the researchers said, white-collar workers—or “knowledge workers,” in the modern parlance—have had two productivity peaks in their workday: just before lunch and just after lunch. But since the pandemic, a third and smaller bump of work has emerged in the late evening. Microsoft’s researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “triple peak day.”
For the new study, workers allowed Microsoft to track their “keyboard events”—a funny euphemism for sending emails or engaging with productivity applications on a work computer. While most people didn’t show a third mountain of work in the evening, 30 percent did. They were working almost as much at 10 p.m. as they were at 8 a.m.
Several underlying phenomena are pushing up this third mountain of work. One is the flexibility of at-home work. For example, parents of young kids might interrupt their workday or cut it off early for school pickup, dinnertime, bedtime, and other child care. This leaves a rump of work that they finish up later. Other workers are night owls who get their second wind—or even their primary gust of creativity—just before bed.
That’s the positive spin on Microsoft’s findings: Flexible, remote work allows people to move the day around and match productivity to inspiration. But the triple peak isn’t all positive.
Microsoft has also found that the pandemic has simply led to more overall work. According to company research, the average workday has expanded by 13 percent—about an hour—since March 2020, and average after-hours work has increased by twice as much. People might be working longer hours for several reasons. At home, work is especially leaky: Leisure bleeds into labor (reading TMZ during a Zoom meeting) and work seeps into leisure (answering emails at the dinner table).
Home and work used to have stronger geographical and technological boundaries: We left our house, drove to an office or factory, and then returned home, leaving the tools of work behind. Today, most knowledge work is basically just communication, which makes it indistinguishable from a lot of leisure. Chat with a colleague, or a friend; call a client, or a sibling: The biggest difference between these activities is the person on the other end of the horn. As work becomes more like life, it also becomes more of life.
Something else is pushing work into our evenings: White-collar work has become a bonanza of meetings. In the first months of the pandemic, Microsoft saw online meetings soar as offices shut down. By the end of 2020, the number of meetings had doubled. In 2021, it just kept growing. This year it’s hit an all-time high.
“People have 250 percent more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic,” says Mary Czerwinski, the research manager of the Human Understanding and Empathy group at Microsoft. “That means everything else—like coding and email and writing—is being pushed later.” Workday creep and meeting creep aren’t two separate trends; they’re the same trend.
At a deep level, meeting inflation is about the outdated expectation that all office work ought to be synchronous, or happening at the same time for everyone. Meetings require synchronicity: Everybody be present now. But most white-collar labor can be at least somewhat asynchronous. We send emails and chats that don’t require an immediate response. We edit and share documents without the expectation that our colleagues will attend to our work in a matter of milliseconds. Good remote managers should be time ninjas, continually deciding what work must be synchronous (meetings) and what work can be asynchronous (emails or shared docs).
“The future of work requires that we think about what work should be real-time and what should be anytime,” says Javier Hernandez, a researcher at Microsoft. One obvious solution is fewer meetings—or at least fewer days for meetings. Czerwinski told me that having two or even three meeting-free days during the week has been better for her team’s productivity. Another solution is recording meetings for subsequent playback to allow colleagues to catch up later, which is especially helpful for global teams whose members can’t all be awake and online at the same time. Yet another is asking employees about their “chronotype” to have a better understanding of who’s a night owl and who’s an early bird.
We need a deeper theory of work and time. When we say “That meeting should have been an email,” we’re not just saying “My boss wouldn’t stop talking.” We’re also saying “I think the information from that synchronous event would have been more productively shared as an asynchronous communication, so that an hour of necessary work wasn’t shifted later into the workday.” Our late-night mini workdays are not just an expression of benign flexibility. They’re also the consequence of inflexible managers filling the day with so many meetings that we have to add a “worknight” to do our job.