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NextGen Magazine


Survey: Work Breaks Differ in the Office and at Home

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Jul 25, 2023

What do workers do all day, aside from working? They take breaks, but the breaks they take at home are different from the ones that they take at the office, according to a recent survey, The Wall Street Journal reported.

While employees in the office are more likely to kill time scrolling the internet or playing a game on their phones, remote workers are more likely to exercise, complete chores and personal errands, and care for their children during the workday, according to a survey of 4,537 U.S. adults conducted in May by researchers at Stanford University.

“You can completely shirk at the office,” Nick Bloom, a Stanford University economist and one of the authors of the research, told the Journal. Workers at home have the option of making more rational choices, he added.

In the workplace, commuters are dependent on transit schedules and sensitive to being judged for being late. At home, they can tackle personal to-do lists, rather than waiting until the workday is done.

It is not as if people do not engage in personal activities at the office. “Our expectation as a whole that people are never going to tend their personal lives while they’re at work is absolutely ridiculous,” Pam Sampson, chief program officer of an 800-employee Massachusetts nonprofit, told the Journal. Most of her staff are in the office five days a week and she knows they surf online and make personal phone calls. She worries, though, that, left alone, they will “work and work and work and they’ll become crabbier and crabbier and crabbier,” so she mandated a break every six weeks for her 50 managers that she called “Pam’s Stupid Games.” Such games can entail a daytime scavenger hunt across central Massachusetts or an afternoon in an escape room.   

On-site workers clock 12 more minutes of productivity a day on average than remote workers, according to an analysis of 91,000 employees by ActivTrak, a maker of workforce analytics software. They do take breaks—two more a week than remote workers, according to ActivTrak.

“The presence of other people gets us to be better people,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the author of a book about harnessing motivation, in an interview with the Journal. Alone at home, “you constantly have a fear of like, What are you missing? What is the opportunity cost? What should I have been doing?” she said. 

Many employers would probably agree that breaks at the office are more productive, but hybrid and remote workers interviewed by the Journal think otherwise.

“The breaks at home are the breaks I choose to take,” Larry Lock, a 26-year-old hybrid worker in Virginia, told the Journal. “And the breaks in the office are the ones that are taken for me.”

Brenda Schumacher, a marketing and communications professional in the Dallas area, said that “[n]othing really got done that first hour” after coming into the office at 9 a.m. and exchanging pleasantries with co-workers. “That was our work-life balance, right there.”

She now works remotely at a new job, which she prefers. “You don’t have to go up to everyone and go, ‘How was your weekend?’” she said. “You can just get to work.”