The late, great novelist Douglas Adams used to say that time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so. If so, our illusory midday break is slipping away.

A group of researchers at Microsoft has been crunching data about how work habits have shifted over the past few months, using all sorts of anonymized data from the company’s own workforce. It turns out, as you may have already experienced, there is a lot more work activity through the lunch hour than there used to be. And it’s not just meal time getting squeezed. Work activity, as measured by emails, instant messages, and meetings, has increased after 6 p.m. and on weekends. Overall, people are working four more hours per week on average.

The researchers have a theory to explain the shift: People have had to become more flexible during traditional working hours, blurring work-life boundaries and leaving a larger pile of undone work looming over the off hours.

“Employees said they were carving out pockets of personal time to care for children, grab some fresh air or exercise, and walk the dog,” they wrote. “To accommodate these breaks, people were likely signing into work earlier and signing off later.”

It’s a shift that hopefully will not stick. We’ve known for a long time now that excessive flexibility about work hours becomes a cover for just way more work, and how bad it is for people’s mental health and particularly tough on working mothers.

Some changes in the current economy, however, may be more welcome. At least in the group studied, meetings of an hour or longer dropped 11% compared to the months before lockdown, while meetings of 30 minutes or less jumped 22%. That’s another one that we’ve known for a long time—shorter meetings are more productive.

The Microsoft study didn’t delve into the different ways that work has changed for different groups of people during COVID-19, however.

Some statistics suggest that women have been disproportionately hurt by the sudden rise in unemployment, accounting for 55% of job cuts in March and April and only 45% of new hires in May. And women are still taking on the majority of the burden for at-home tasks like child care during lockdown. The bottom line, as my colleague Kristen Bellstrom noted in Fortune‘s Broadsheet newsletter last week, is that working from home can hurt women’s careers. The economic crisis sparked by COVID-19 has also disproportionately hit Black and Latino workers.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that, after this most dangerous phase of the pandemic, we will need to seriously think about the changes it has wrought in how we work, and which should be embraced and which need to be reversed.

Aaron Pressman




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