How COVID-19’s 168-Hour Workweek Is Changing Work In Retirement

Ken, a financial analyst, stares at me through his laptop camera. His unshaven face fills my screen as he exclaims, “My day really has no beginning and no end.”

“I wake up and head downstairs, punch on the coffee machine, and then before I know it, it starts.”

“What starts?” I ask. He looks at me as if he can’t believe the question. “Work!”

Detecting some annoyance in his voice, Ken describes his morning. “Seconds after pouring myself a hot cup, I go to my corner office in the basement, switch on CNBC, and begin checking emails.”

“Before I know it, I have been on a few calls, drafted a memo or two, and it’s time for lunch – and I am still in my boxers!”

Imagery I really did not need for the interview.

He goes on to complain, “some days I don’t even shower until dinner.”

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Again, he provides too much information.

Not everyone can work from home, but many now do. Home and work are no longer separate places or activities. Without the boundaries of the morning and evening commute, there is no physical, nor temporal, division between work and home.

Work life and home life are now one experience. Children competing for bandwidth, partners needing their own work space, dogs barking, cats jumping on keyboards, all while colleagues speak passionately about a work issue, but unknowingly have themselves muted.

Katy, an executive assistant at a Hartford, Connecticut insurance company, has called her kitchen counter her office since March when her firm closed its offices due to COVID-19. “It feels like I work days, nights, and weekends. Although no one has said anything, I feel like I have to work harder, and do more, just to keep my job.” Looking down and away from her camera, she remarks, “so many people have been furloughed or worse.”

Welcome to COVID’s new 24/7, 168-hour workweek. Work for most people has been traditionally defined around 8 hours per day, or 40 hours a week – more for some. Few professionals can say that they routinely work day and night seven days a week, unless there is a special project, some extraordinary demand, or they possess exceptional inner drive.

Working from home with 24/7 connectivity is the new norm for many people in today’s COVID workplace. Not only do days and nights blur into each other, so do entire days of the week. The slang “blursday” has become popular now that it often takes some thought to recall if it is Sunday, or is it Monday, Thursday or TGIF? Answer – it’s “blursday.”

This new work pattern is no longer new. It has been ongoing for nearly six months and really does not show signs of ending anytime soon. Despite the downsides of working from home many are starting to see it through the lens of what retirement might look like.

If full-time work feels like a seeming 168-hour workweek, transitioning to a formal retirement schedule where employer and personal expectations are reduced, and might mean only being required to be available part-time, say a mere 40 hours a week, working in ‘retirement’ will feel like a break.

Despite the complaints of working at home, many COVID home workers are already sensing the retirement possibilities. Paul, a Philadelphia-based 60-year old accountant, notes that “working with a few of my favorite clients in retirement is feeling more possible than I would have imagined as little as a year ago.” “Everything I need is online. I can easily chat with my clients or colleagues on video.”

But Paul goes beyond the logistics of work to spotlight the lifestyle benefits of working from home and what that might mean for his retirement. He says, “I used to commute more than an hour from home to my office in center city – working from home I added almost three hours a day to my life.”

Rhetorically Paul asks me, “do you how many hours a week that is?” Before I can answer he exclaims with a big smile “15 (expletive deleted) hours! That’s equal to two (expletive deleted) whole work days for me!”

In terms that perhaps only an accountant would use, Paul goes on to monetize the benefits of working from home, “Not only am I getting more free time to do what I want, I am saving tremendously on work clothes, gas, wear and tear on my car, and even bridge tolls. I can even work down the shore if I want”

Paul’s accounting of what he can do by working from home sounds a lot like retirement.

Many people look forward to retirement as an earned life stage to do what they want, when, and where they want. As I observe in a previous article, retirement is not a continuous vacation without the nagging feeling of having to go back to work, it is a lot of time – time that is often difficult to fill.

Working in retirement to fill that time is a choice for some. Work is not just about income, it is also a strategy to maintain sanity in a life stage that is likely to be one-third of your adult life. Work often provides a sense of purpose and, for some, is simply a reason to get up in the morning and connect with others – even if virtually.

While not everyone has the option, working from home has now become normal for many. Lawyers, management consultants, financial advisors, accountants, designers, even physicians, are finding that working from home is possible. Google GOOGL and Facebook are not calling employees back until summer 2021. Software maker Atlassian TEAM announced that its 5,000 workers don’t have to return to the office…ever.

Entire home office products and services have emerged to support working from home. Many of these same products and services will enable working from home in retirement. Perhaps a true sign that work from home has made its way into our virtual, if not societal conscience, is that it now has its own hashtag, #WFH.

Large swaths of the workforce were forced to work from home. Even after offices reopen, the idea of flexible work has become more far more flexible, making the question of retirement for many less about when to stop work, but instead how much do you want to work?

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