Remote work and the screen-time debate

Screens are winning, and that’s not a bad thing

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the country are working from home at unprecedented levels. Although remote work has been on the rise for some time now, up until the pandemic, the trend was relatively slow. Gallup found that from 2012 to 2016, the percentage of workers who did at least part of their work from home increased from 39 to 43 percent. But even in 2017, the U.S. Census found that only 5.2 percent of Americans worked entirely from home.

COVID-19 changed all of that as states enacted stay-at-home orders, and companies moved to telework to help slow the spread of the virus. A new report by Upwork’s Chief Economist Adam Ozimek finds that nearly 50 percent of America’s overall workforce is now working remotely and that 62 percent of hiring managers plan to keep more of their workforce remote going forward.

With more remote work also comes more screen time. Should we be worried about the mental health and sleep patterns of all of these new remote workers who are now spending more time on their electronic devices? Prior to the pandemic, warnings about too much screen time were everywhere. Too much screen time has been blamed for poor mental health, anxiety, and depression, and trouble sleeping, especially among teens and children. “Digital overload” has even been compared to smoking.

It may have taken a global pandemic to teach us that screen time may not deserve such a bad rap. A recent article by Will Rinehart discussed how much of the doom-and-gloom surrounding screen time before the pandemic has now given way to an embrace of technology for keeping us productive and connected during a global pandemic. A recent Washington Post article perfectly describes the shift in America’s perspective on screens:

“A few weeks in, America’s great self-quarantine is prompting a rethink of one of the great villains of modern technology: screens. Now your devices are portals to employment and education, ways to keep you inside and build community, and vital reminders you’re not alone.”

As we rely on technology to keep us productive and connected with coworkers who may be across town or across the country, it should come as no surprise that we are using our digital devices more. The RescueTime blog looked at data from its 14,000 users and found that daily device use has increased 16 percent or the equivalent of almost an extra hour every day.

While an extra hour a day on screens may seem like a bad thing, it turns out there is more to the story. For one, this extra hour almost exactly offsets the average worker’s round-trip commute time of 52 minutes before the pandemic. For remote workers, the daily commute has now dropped to zero. It also turns out that people are probably not spending that extra hour of screen time on work alone.

Source: RescueTime Blog

RescueTime also compared the work habits of remote workers to those who spend their days in the office. They found that remote workers actually spend less time working than office workers. According to RescueTime surveys, only 48 percent of remote workers spend 8 hours or more per day working, while 68.5 percent of office workers do so. Remote workers are also 20 percent more likely to say that they complete their daily tasks most days and 17 percent more likely to leave work feeling satisfied with what they accomplished.

If RescueTime’s data is representative of the larger population, then remote workers are spending more time on their screens than before, but less time working overall. That makes worries about screen-time less concerning. Remote workers are able to finish their work more quickly and feel more satisfied with a day’s work.

We also know that not all screen time is created equal. RescueTime measured increases in device use for different purposes. Unsurprisingly, the biggest increase was for communication (from 35 percent before March 11 to 49 percent after March), but the second-largest increase in device use was for entertainment.

As the weeks stuck at home drag on, we are using our devices to play video games, watch Netflix, and stay sane during an otherwise maddening quarantine. Even the World Health Organization has recommended video games as an effective way to keep people connected and entertained while maintaining social distancing. That comes just about a year after the organization classified video game addiction as a mental health disorder. And the CDC has recommended calls and video chats to help keep people connected during the quarantine.

Source: RescueTime Blog

To be sure, working from home comes with its challenges. When home and work blend together (quite literally), it can be difficult to establish boundaries and put away work when the workday is over. It’s also tough to be productive when you’re adjusting to life in a global pandemic. RescueTime found that the number of daily productive hours dipped initially after social distancing was put in place. But once people got used to this new way of working, productivity went back up and is now higher than pre-COVID-19 levels. This shouldn’t be surprising. Even before the pandemic, researchers have found large productivity gains from allowing people to work from home.

Even as states begin to reopen, remote work is likely to remain more common than before the pandemic. Whether they like it or not, companies and workers alike have had to experiment with remote work, and many are finding it works quite well. Upwork’s recent survey found that 56 percent of hiring managers thought working remotely has gone better than expected. As a result, expected growth in full-time remote work has doubled from 30% over the next five years to 65%. Among workers, Upwork found the largest benefits of remote work included the lack of a commute, fewer unneeded meetings, and a less distracting work environment.

Allowing people to work remotely also has added environmental benefits and reduces the cost of expensive office space in high rent areas like San Francisco. A recent survey of 100 businesses in the Bay Area found that executives expect only 74 percent of workers to come back to the office, and nearly a fifth of companies surveyed plan to transition entirely to a remote workforce.

Remote workers get more work done in less time, meaning fewer hours of screen time are spent on work. That means more time for Zoom calls with family and friends or binging your favorite TV show with your quarantine buddy. And once the pandemic has passed, remote work could give workers more face-to-face time to spend with friends and family. The one thing that’s clear is that screen time is not going anywhere. Instead of continuing to villainize screen time, we should recognize it for the valuable tool that it is for making our lives more productive, more connected, and even more fun.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.