- - Thursday, December 8, 2022

Ever wonder why Elon Musk is so adamant about people coming into the office? Here’s the reason: Actual data from the government now shows that people actually work a lot less when they work from home. We love our employees. But many of them have been stealing from us.

According to a number of time study analyses from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, exclusive of commuting time, workers that come into the office spend about 7.84 hours a day on their jobs. Workers that work from home spend about 5.61 hours in that same period, or almost 40% less time.

To emphasize the impact, a software review site called Today Testing ran some numbers on this data and found that on average, full-time employees who work from home had exactly 11.5 hours of extra free time each week, or 598 hours a year. That’s about 25 extra days of free time a year, or five workweeks! Again, commuting time is not included in these numbers. This is just the time workers spend in their home office … or as we’ve now found … not.

Is this theft? You bet it is.

It’s generally agreed — and in many cases contractually stated — that full-time employees get paid to work 40 hours a week. But now we see that when these same workers do their jobs from home, they’re working only about 28.5 hours a week. What are they doing with the extra 11.5 hours? Have they alerted their employers of this difference and admitted they were being paid more than what was contracted? Have they returned this unearned money?

No, they pocketed it.

They decided to do other things with their time … on their employers’ dollar. Thanks to the pandemic, millions of these workers are in violation of their employment contracts. They got paid for services they didn’t perform. If a small contractor were found to have been paid for unperformed services, that business would be subject to lawsuits. What about employees?

The data raises serious questions for employers that are grappling with their work-from-home policies. Of course this is a popular benefit, particularly in these post-pandemic times. Who wouldn’t want to work from home, knowing that they’d be paid the same for spending 40% less time on the job?

Working from home certainly provides more time to spend with one’s family. It can be good for one’s physical and mental health. Work-from-home employees enjoy more flexibility, mobility and independence. And thanks to all this time saved, those “super-busy” and “slammed” corporate workers have now miraculously found the time to be entrepreneurs by creating an unprecedented number of new side gigs, startups and businesses over the past two to three years.

All of this using the time stolen from their employers.

When I discuss this data with my clients, I watch their moods darken. They begin to ponder why they’re paying their employees the same when they’re clearly getting significantly fewer hours put into the job. Some are still OK with this because as long as employees meet their responsibilities, the time spent isn’t as important (this is the basis of the 4-Day Workweek movement).

But others aren’t so sure. Now that we know the true cost of the work-from-home benefit, they’re planning to weigh this benefit along with other benefits provided by their company and reconsider all of these costs.

Some are already thinking of more tasks to fill those open hours so that they don’t have to hire more people in this particularly tight labor market. More than a few are reducing the compensation of their remote workers. Others, like Mr. Musk, are thinking of significantly paring down their work-from-home policies and requiring more face time in the office, where more hours are actually spent on actual work.

A growing number of firms — facing an economic slowdown — are cutting the fat by first cutting those employees they suspected all along weren’t fully doing what they were being paid to do. No one I know plans on prosecuting these employees for theft. But more than a few would love to.

Working from home saved the American economy during the pandemic. And in those times, employees knew they had a great thing going because, as it turns out, they were literally stealing hours from their employers. But like all the other health, scientific, lockdown, vaccination and masking data that is starting to reveal the mistakes made in that period, the data being released about working from home will likely put an end to that theft and help employers to better manage and determine the true added cost of this employee benefit.

• Gene Marks is a CPA and owner of The Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm specializing in small and medium-sized companies.

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