Working Hard? Or Hardly Working?

What the numbers tell us about remote work and productivity.

CC0 Public Domain image from PxHere

A WSJ report (“Remote Work Sticks for All Kinds of Jobs“) notes the unsurprising fact that

Workers in unexpected jobs are clocking more time from home than before the pandemic hit.

It isn’t just white-collar workers logging in from bedrooms instead of boardrooms. Lower-income, less-educated and service-industry workers spent more time working from home, on average, last year than before the pandemic struck.

The broad-based gains suggest that while much of American life has reverted to prepandemic norms, remote work persists and is subtly reshaping many professions.

Americans who worked any time from home spent an average of 5 hours and 25 minutes a day working from their residences in 2022. That is about two hours more than in 2019, the year before Covid-19 sent millions of workers scrambling to set up home offices, and down just 12 minutes from 2021, according to the Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey.

Those figures reflect the average amount of time spent working from home among all employed Americans who did some work from home. Work done at home can include one minute checking a company email or a 12-hour shift. It strictly includes work done at home and excludes assignments done at a place such as a coffee shop.

One reason remote work remains more prevalent than before Covid-19 first upended job routines is workers still have a lot of leverage in a labor market that remains historically tight. Employers cling to staff they fought to hire during the pandemic rebound. 

Well . . . yeah. Employees like the flexibility that comes from remote work. While many managers lament the loss of accountability and ease of collaboration, business owners love the cost savings of not having to provide office space.

Kevin Drum is not a fan. He cites this piece of the above report

Many lower-wage office and call-center jobs went remote at the onset of the pandemic. Business executives viewed the shift as a temporary emergency measure, said Julia Pollak, chief economist at jobs site ZipRecruiter….“Many employers were surprised to discover that remote customer support agents and freight dispatchers, for example, were often just as effective and productive working from home, if not more so,” Pollak said.

Thanks to those productivity gains, as well as improved recruitment and retention, reduced absenteeism and lower real-estate costs, companies decided to keep offering remote options for some lower-wage staff long after offices reopened, she said. [emphases Drum’s]

and observes,

Oh please. This article is based heavily on data from the American Time Use Survey, so let’s see what ATUS says about remote work. I’ve put this up before more generally, but here it is for different professions:

On average, across every profession, people who work at home put in way fewer hours than people who work in an office. The average difference is nearly three hours, and this is true every other type of measurement too. Full-time vs. part-time. Men vs. women. High school grads vs. PhDs.

These figures are not averages for everybody. They are solely for employed people who “worked at their workplace on an average day” or “worked at home on an average day.” And if these numbers are even in the ballpark of being correct, they mean that workers at home spend a ton of time goofing off just because they can. There’s no other conclusion to draw. Is it any wonder they love working at home?

My bias and experience is in the other direction.

Let’s stipulate that my job (college professor and department head) is unusual. I can run seminars, attend staff meetings, and collaborate with colleagues with reasonable effectiveness using remote tools like Zoom, Teams, or Meet. I prefer to do those things in person for a variety of reasons but they’re doable remotely at pretty close to full efficiency. (Hybrid, where some are in the room and others remote, by contrast, is absolutely terrible.)

But much of my job consists of doing work alone in front of a computer. Writing lesson plans, reports, research papers, and the like. Grading papers. Answering emails. I’m much, much, much more efficient doing those tasks at home, particularly if I’m the only one here.* Why? Because I’m seldom interrupted by colleagues or staff members wanting to chat about something or another. Or just killing time because there’s a meeting that I need to attend in 23 minutes and there’s no point in trying to get any real work done in the meantime.

Now, it’s true that I spend quite a bit of time “goofing off” when at home. If I’m grading papers, I’ll tend to take a short break between each of them and do something that doesn’t require intense concentration. Maybe I’ll switch out the laundry or empty the dishwasher. Surf the internet to catch up on my favorite sports teams. Take a short walk while listening to a podcast. Sometimes, this is simply procrastination. But, on balance, I think I’m actually more productive precisely because of these breaks.

Were I filling out a time-use survey,** though, I would count them as “goofing off” or otherwise not working. Conversely, I would count every second that I spent at the office as “working,” even if I was actually surfing the internet to kill time between meetings, chatting with a colleague about something not work-related, or any number of other unproductive things that happen pretty much every day there. Precisely because I’m at work.


*I’m back from vacation and working from home today but, because we’re on summer hiatus, don’t need to report to the office for a couple more weeks.

**I must confess that I lack the imagination to understand how one can do production, construction, or farming remotely.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    I’ve been a fully remote worker for the last six years, and was a federal government employee before that.

    As you note, I think Kevin Drum’s “hours worked per day” doesn’t account for the fact that people may be at work but not doing much work. I agree that the lack of interruptions when working at home is a huge benefit. And my “goofing off” or taking a break at home is usually more productive than breaks at a workplace and more rejuvenating.

    I don’t have time to look it up presently, but I do remember reading research that work quality and efficiency are often higher at home. That’s certainly been the case for me.

    But like you, most of my work is in front of a computer, which I can do anywhere. Quite obviously, a lot of jobs are simply not compatible with remote work.

  2. Jen says:

    It’s always seemed to me like these are measuring time in office vs. some tracking tool. Until I see a tracking tool in office vs. tracking tool at home, I’m skeptical.

    People screw around all the time at the office. At one place I worked, I walked by a coworker’s desk and he was literally streaming a movie instead of working. Another would play music through a headset and sit at his desk and “jam” for a while–I could see him playing air drums for a half hour at a time. I’d hear another one clipping his nails.

    Sitting in front of a screen at work does not necessarily translate to “working.”

    I’m a freelancer now, and most of my time is billed out, so I keep track of how many hours I work. I am way more efficient at home and far prefer the flexibility I have being a consultant/contract worker. I can dial my workload up or down depending on what else is going on in my life.

    This notion that we have to be perfectly efficient at all times is a hot mess and it’s leading to burnout.

  3. DrDaveT says:

    On average, across every profession, people who work at home put in way fewer hours than people who work in an office.

    Yes, but how much work do they get done? Isn’t that what you ought to care about — not how many hours it took, but the volume and quality of the product?

    I work a mix of at-home and in-office these days. My company hasn’t figured it out yet — the time in the office is now less productive than it used to be because the people I need to meet with aren’t all there at the same time unless I explicitly schedule that. My time at home — even including breaks like the one I’m taking at the moment — is much more productive than being in my office if I need to grind on something. And the commute time to and from my office is dead loss to everyone — please count those hours in the “at work” productivity calculation.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Conversely, I would count every second that I spent at the office as “working,” even if I…


    On the other hand, I’m terrible at remote work–and even worse at self-employment. I ascribe that to having worked for 15 years in a job where I did approximately 100% of my work at the warehouse. Mostly, I wasn’t important enough to contact at home, but when I became important enough to, people used to think about how irritable I was at work and reconsider how important it was to disturb me at home. (How I managed to keep this job for 15 years has always amazed me–but the story Luddite sometimes tells about the guy who wanted to hire me because he remembered what an a-hole I’d been seems to be true.) Even after I became a teacher, I avoided bringing work home. Home is where I don’t work–and that shows up in the housekeeping at times. 🙁

  5. steve says:

    As other have noted I think hours worked is not the right metric, it should be output. I bet this is actually high variable for at home or in office work so the issue is probably not so much whether WFH is a good choice but for whom it is a good choice. For some people, apparently James. people stopping by the office is a bother. For others it might enhance innovation.

    just nutha- A teacher complaining about homework? The irony!


  6. Argon says:

    At work, we use the bathroom on company time. We chat about family and our latest binge-watched shows on company time. We eat in the cafeteria on company time. At home we work or don’t work. We chat less. We can cover more time zones working from home. We less stressed fighting the commute to work.

    What hurts business are mangers used to in-person management or building leases for higher capacity than needed. The latter makes CEOs look bad because they have to account for emptier offices. So there is a perverse incentive to get as many people back in office seats ASAP.

  7. Slugger says:

    Productivity is output divided by input. Making $100 worth of stuff with $80 worth of work is higher productivity than doing it with $90 of work. Before we talk about productivity we need to define the inputs and the end product. I don’t see much of that in the articles listed above. Drum says that the WFHs are working fewer hours. If their output is unchanged, which I think he stipulates in a backhanded way, then WFH is a way to give workers a raise without having to spend any money and without costing them any taxes. Seems okay to me.
    Obviously, some occupations are more suitable for WFH than others. My tattoo shop really requires both of us to show up at the same place, but my phone bank call-in center works via Zoom.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    If an employee is paid for his productive labor, he’ll produce more. If an employee is paid for his time, he has no incentive to be productive. Work from home squares that circle by allowing employees to turn a tedious 8 hours of middling productivity into say, 5 hours of more concentrated work. I’m not surprised that a lot of managers don’t like paying for 8 hours only to see the work finished in 5, because for a lot of managers it’s as much about lording it over their inferiors as it is about getting work done efficiently.

    I work from home and have managed to effectively eliminate most oversight by being professional and efficient and well, unfriendly. When I have to interact with people in actual jobs (publishing, Hollywood) I find them painfully slow and inefficient. I’ve come to dread the word, ‘meeting’ as well as its modern iteration, ‘Zoom.’ Nothing is ever accomplished in these meetings, but they sure do blow a hole in my productive work day.

    ~150 books in 30 years with essentially no managers or meetings or even memos. With meetings and supervision and office hours and policies and working lunches and all the rest of it, that number would be 15.

  9. Andy says:


    Time spent commuting is a very important factor, thanks for pointing that out. Also, I hate commuting.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: Not complaining. Just noting that even if I did bring work home–and I usually didn’t–I worked on it at some other location than my house. Starbucks stores–with chairs and seating–were invented for a reason, you know. Having a destination/place to work was my go to standard. Home has too many distractions.

    And besides that, my wife usually commandeered the primo grading location–the table in our formal dining room.

  11. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Few people understand that when a writer gazes blankly out a window, he or she is working.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    …WFH is a way to give workers a raise without having to spend any money…

    Maybeso, maybenot. If in fact the time the employee is not using productively for you (the surplus you are no longer paying for) can be converted to additional productive opportunity, yes the employee gets a raise. If not, you’re taking credit for giving the person “a raise” that doesn’t redound to a higher income. A phantom/imaginary raise, if you will.

    I would guess that most people who get their hours cut–irrespective of hourly rate–end up with the cut time becoming lost opportunity rather than increased income–the usual result of a raise in hourly rate. But I may well be wrong on that point. My observational experience, though, is that reduced hours are difficult to replace at par value. I have no practical experience in this question having always worked for wages. Often times cobbling together adequate opportunity hours from multiple sources–a sucker’s bet at best.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Nothing is ever accomplished in these meetings…

    Been there. Don’t recall ever having attended a faculty meeting that couldn’t have been accomplished better with an email. Maybe that’s why Korean schools were so big on pairing faculty meetings and lunch.

  14. Jen says:

    @CSK: I’ve tried to explain to non-writers how often I am able to figure out a piece when I’m doing something else (or, sometimes, doing nothing).

    Writing something is rarely a command performance.

  15. CSK says:


    I used to tell my students that if they got stuck, they should go for a walk. Worked for me; why not them?

  16. Tony W says:

    As with most things, the problems are in the metrics.

    You get more of whatever you measure and reward. If time in the office is measured and rewarded, you’ll get lots of it. If productivity, or widget production, or book writing, or sucking up to the boss is rewarded – you’ll get more of that.

    When I was working, my company measured things like billed hours for services folks – but what little measurement there was of the *impact* of those billed hours was relegated to manager discretion on what was most impactful.

    For example, I’d be comparing the impact of coming up with a way to train new people versus the impact of a customer adopting our entire software platform. Of course, the training option took away from billed hours, so that person took a hit on the measured metrics for helping the team. And the employee who “persuaded” the customer to adopt our platform was greatly assisted by the sales team – who probably did most of the work.

    This is why I have turned in my badge and am no longer a cog in the wheel of corporate America.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I would argue that if 1) your pay remains the same; 2) you have more hours each day to take care of your personal business; and 3) you’re saving money on commuting costs, dry cleaning, work clothes, office lunches, and other work-related expense then, yes, you’ve effectively gotten a pay raise. I figure we were saving a couple hundred dollars a week during the COVID lockdowns that were only modestly offset by extra costs at home.

  18. Kathy says:

    Many office jobs lack a constant, steady stream of work, At our office, sometimes we get all that can be done in a day in under two hours, sometimes we stay late into the night or the next day racing against a deadline. It would be folly to demand X hours of work under such conditions.

  19. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I’m guessing Drum is a Boomer and not from a younger generation. Considering “hours worked” rather than productivity as most important is a very Boomer way to measure work. I don’t mean that as an insult, nor to imply that all Boomers think that way – the frame of reference I’m using is Organizational Behavior and specifically literature on effective management across generational lines.

    I’m currently in consideration for a position at another employer, which I intend to take if offered, for only one reason: my current employer has taken a hard line approach of “everything must go back to the way it was before COVID” in terms of work arrangements.

    After spending the better part of 2.5 years being effective at managing the competing demands of work, eldercare, and self-care when I am WFH for 80% of my work hours, compared to how ineffective I have been the past few months at balancing those roles when forced to work a set schedule on site, applying for a FT position that is 80 – 95% WFH was a no-brainer. Which is unfortunate, because six months ago, I had no intention of leaving my current position before retirement.

  20. just nutha says:

    @James Joyner: I lean toward “if I can spend/save more…” I suspect it’s a difference in calculating opportunity cost. I’m stingy about opportunity value.

    ETA: I should note that I worked in settings where I had no power over my wages except resigning all of my career.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Good luck! The possible new gig sounds like a much better life.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @just nutha: For my entire career I’ve been paid more money than I need for more work than I want to do.

    If I had the mindset of a consultant, I would do that and cut my hours back. But, I don’t, and the work I am best at is generally done at the biggest companies, so I just take off chunks between jobs.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @just nutha: For my entire career I’ve been paid more money than I need for more work than I want to do.

    If I had the mindset of a consultant, I would do that and cut my hours back. But, I don’t, and the work I am best at is generally done at the biggest companies, so I just take off chunks between jobs.

  24. Ken_L says:

    The ATUS uses an unusual research method called a “conversational interview”. Respondents are interviewed and asked to describe everything they did over a given period of time (usually the previous day, from memory) and the interviewer decides how to allocate those tasks to various activity descriptors set out in the ATUS taxonomy. I don’t know if respondents are asked/required to keep notes or a diary, or if they simply rely on their memories.

    I’m pretty dubious about the validity/reliability of data from such a research design. I understand why they’ve adopted it, because asking people to fill out diaries and the like is also problematic. But I’m not convinced their approach is any better. However one thing about it is clear: any time required to be spent at an employer’s workplace counts as “work” no matter what the respondent was actually doing there, whereas only direct work-related activities count as work in the home. Not only does this give a misleading impression about the time spent on productive work activities in the two different locations, but it’s likely people describing what they did at home will fail to enumerate in granular detail things like answering a phone call or reading an email, which individually only take a minute or two but may well add up to close to an hour over the course of a day.

    I’m not convinced there is any way to obtain valid, reliable data about how Americans use their time short of employing an army of researchers to directly observe a representative sample for an extended period.

  25. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Gustopher: Much appreciated! Thank you.

  26. de stijl says:

    I have solved more problems on cigarette breaks than I have by diligently plugging forward.

    There is a built in transition. You take an elevator ride. You emerge into the bright light of day. You watch the passersby and you think and you break things down, sort them, assign categories, plop them into buckets.

    Smoking is a bad habit and I do not encourage that, but taking ten minutes away from desk and staring at the sky and recontextualing the problem helps solving it – a lot.

    Taking a break in the middle of work helped me immensely in problem solving. It’s not the nicotine it’s the ritual – the walk to the elevator, the ride itself, hitting the door.

    I am trying hard not to encourage this practice, but taking a smoke break every two hours helped my professional career immensely. I was able to recontextualize problems and see a solution path clearly. Had I stayed at my desk for eighteen hours straight I would have just kept plugging away at the suboptimal, straight forward, brute force path because I’d locked in.

    Insight comes from reflection. Breaks are necessary. They give you the opportunity to reflect and change your approach. Time is precious.

    Even if you do not smoke, I highly encourage every working adult to take ten minutes every two hours to go outside and look at the world and contemplate the sky. Consciously breath deeply. Space out. You will solve a shit ton of problems by taking a ten minute break just naturally.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: The story goes that a certain U.S. car company had hired a productivity specialist to go around and check to see if any improvements could be made. The specialist came back and reported that everything seemed fine, except for the guy he found sitting in an office with his feet on the desk staring out the window, and that he recommended firing him.

    The CEO’s response was:”that guy you’re complaining about has just came up with a brand-new idea which will save our company millions of dollars each year in manufacturing costs. Let him have his feet on the desk and stare out the window.”