Unpaid hours a lasting side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic

Working remotely or from home has become the new normal over the past two years, but an unfortunate trend has emerged – the blurring of work and personal time, and a big increase in unpaid hours. Employment experts across the Baker Tilly International network explain how that occurs.

Time to read: 5 mins

While much of the world has transitioned away from lockdowns, mask mandates and other harsh restrictions related to COVID-19, one measure introduced to help curb the spread of the virus is fast becoming a permanent feature of the working environment.

Prior to the pandemic, working from home or working remotely was seen as an option only for the most progressive of companies, with many corporates fearing a productivity plunge if workers were left unsupervised for too long. In 2022, however, employers in many countries are increasingly finding they are having to embrace the practice of allowing employees to operate outside of the office, or at least offer a hybrid model, to attract and retain the best staff.

But while employees have embraced the freedom that comes with a flexible working environment and the extra time saved without having to commute to an office, working from home has produced an unfortunate side effect – a big increase in hours worked going unpaid.

Amanda Trewhella, Managing Associate at Freeths, part of the Baker Tilly International network, says that as the pandemic has forced office workers away from the office, it has become “too easy” for them to do extra hours.

“I think there is now more of an expectation to do so as well,” she says. “Whereas before, people would have had to have left the office at a certain time for social events and whatever else they have going on in their lives, and since people have been working from home without a commute, they are definitely working longer hours.”

Research conducted in 2021 by the United States-based ADP Research Institute showed 67 percent of workers felt empowered to take advantage of flexible working arrangements since the pandemic began, up from just 26 per cent in 2019.

At the same time, unpaid overtime has started to soar, with the average worker reporting they were logging an additional 9.2 hours per week, a big jump from the 7.3 hours reported prior to the pandemic.

The research spanned 17 countries, canvassing more than 32,000 workers on their work habits since the COVID crisis engulfed the globe in early 2020. In addition to the extra hours, nearly half (46%) of the respondents said they had taken on additional responsibilities, to cope with colleagues losing their roles or shifting to new jobs, or to deal with the extra workload COVID-19 has created.

Governments around the world were starting to take notice even before the pandemic, with a raft of measures being introduced globally to ensure workers aren’t exploited and forced into working more hours than they are contractually obliged to. In Europe, there is growing pressure to ring-fence working time. Portugal recently passed a law that makes it illegal for employers to contact their workers outside of office hours.

However, José Freitas, a partner at Baker Tilly Portugal, says the working from home phenomena is likely here to stay.

“This is a practice that no one is willing to let go because people are not used to going through traffic on their way to work anymore,” he says. “Most people are no longer willing to spend an hour of their day going back and forth from their home to their job.”

He says the concept of work hours and personal hours became blurred in the earlier stages of the pandemic. It became common to receive emails at midnight and for parents of young children to put them to bed then finish their work. “It’s important that people know that there is a limit and that there is a border between professional and private life.”

Despite the practice of remote working being embraced by employees and employers alike, Mr Freitas says there are still certain challenges, particularly around equipment such as computers and phones, or furniture. Looking forward, he says employers need to put into writing an agreement on who pays for which costs, which equipment needs to be provided and what training is needed to ensure there was no material difference between working from home and the office.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a recent survey showed £24 billion (NZ $46.3 billion) worth of unpaid overtime was racked up in 2020, as many industries shifted to working from home or hybrid working models, with three million employees working an average of 7.7 extra hours per week. A report from UK-based think tank Autonomy also found that unpaid labour was a growing problem, recommending that legislation should be introduced giving workers the “right to disconnect,” in line with French laws introduced midway through last decade.

“People are working into the evening and when you see other people doing it, it feels like there is now an expectation,” says Freeth’s Amanda Trewhella. “You feel you should now be doing the same to keep up.”

UK employment law specifies a maximum 48-hour working week, however, she says workers can choose to opt out of that mandate and work as many additional hours as their employer requires, provided that it isn’t detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

Regulating those extra hours can be a challenging proposition. “There is tracking software and some companies do use that to track when people are working and when they’re not, but morally, that’s a difficult issue,” Ms Trewhella says.

“Managers need to take the time to notice what people are doing. You don’t need to use tracking software, but if you see somebody sending you an email at 1am in the morning, that’s obviously a warning sign that shouldn’t be allowed to slip by and employers should be talking to their employees about it. It’s just about communicating what’s expected of employees and letting them know that just because a colleague or employer might send an email at midnight, it doesn’t mean that you have to respond immediately. It’s about having those conversations with people and being open about it.”

The text above is taken from Baker Tilly International’s “Unpaid hours a lasting side-effect of pandemic” article, which also covers global wage-related issues resulting from unpaid hours, including Australia’s “wage theft epidemic”. Click here to read the full article.