In the heyday of office work, before the coronavirus pandemic, the workday had a predictable flow, the same across chart after chart.
Productivity would steadily increase through the morning hours as workers came in, with a peak around 11 a.m. There'd be a dip between noon and 1 p.m. (for lunch), a quick rebound before 3 p.m. then a steady dip in productivity afterward. Not much work was getting done after 6 p.m.
But in the two years since the pandemic upended workplaces, many more employees have begun working at night — a noticeable trend made possible by the expansion of remote and hybrid work.
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According to a recent Microsoft report on remote work, so many workers have been signing on late that there's now a spike in productivity around 10 p.m.
But the morning and mid-afternoon productivity peaks remain, so researchers are calling it the "triple peak workday." Microsoft has seen the evening work uptick internally and observed it elsewhere, citing its surveys of workers as well as a wealth of data from Microsoft Teams and other apps.
That data was made available in Microsoft's 2022 Work Trend Index, which you can read in full here.
While it's clear there has been a spike in employees signing on later, there is not one clear reason why, Shamsi Iqbal, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, said on LX News.
Study after study has showed that workers began working more once their jobs became remote, because of factors including more time spent in meetings. Microsoft's data further backs up this claim. The average Microsoft Teams user has spent 252% more hours in Teams meetings compared to February 2020, leaving less time to get actual work done. The number of chat messages users sent has also spiked.
But using late-night work hours to catch up for time lost in meetings is just one possible explanation for the new evening peak.
It also might be the case that remote and hybrid work has helped employees work a more flexible schedule, and they sign on at later hours to catch up on work that accumulated during family or personal time in the afternoon.
"We are really adapting to this new way of working that we really didn't think was possible before," Iqbal said.
Iqbal said it's important that if workers decide to be productive in the evenings, they take time for themselves during the day. It's the difference between "being flexible" and "always on."
"We also need to take care of ourselves and make sure that we're not burning ourselves out. So ideally, no one should be working all three peaks," Iqbal said. "Just make sure that you are not extending the work hours. You are just finding different ways to work and different times to work."
In this new age of work, it's been difficult to denote when the workday ends and when personal life begins.
"It used to be that you would leave the office at 5 o'clock and then you'd return to your desk the next morning at 9 a.m.," Sam Ettus, author and founder of Park Place Payments, said in an April interview with LX News. "There's no commute, so you're heading straight from your bedroom to your desk. But at the same time, I think that means that the boundaries are gone."
Still another explanation for the spike in evening work is international collaboration between teams across time zones.
"Sometimes my remote colleagues or my offshore colleagues, they might catch up to my time zone. And sometimes I might have to join a meeting at 10 p.m. so that it's a good time for them," Iqbal said.
Adapting to a more flexible workday
While off-hours work is a necessary evil for some and a saving grace for others, there are strategies you can stick to and ensure that your late-night productivity doesn't infringe on colleagues' personal time.
If you're one of the employees who signed on late to get stuff done, consider whether your colleagues need to be notified about your work immediately, or if it can wait.
If they're not going to get to your email until the morning anyway, you could schedule a message to send later, Iqbal explained.
"It's up to each person to figure out what their non-negotiables are and figure out those boundaries. So for you, it might mean that you have to have dinner with your family every night and be available to them from five to eight," Ettus said. "That's a lot easier to do now that it's more of a productivity-based culture and less of a face-time-based culture."