Without commutes, how are Americans spending their extra time?

Meena Thiruvengadam | Dec 11, 2020

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have swapped sometimes making long and stressful commutes for working from home.  

The work-from-home phenomenon is saving Americans more than 60 million hours of commuting time a day, according to Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology’s Jose Maria Barrero, Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom, and Chicago Booth’s Steven J. Davis. “The time savings are approaching 10 billion hours as of mid-September for American workers alone. The global reduction in time spent commuting is surely many times larger,” they write.

So, what are people doing with the 54 minutes a day, on average, that they’re saving? Devoting 35 percent to more work on their primary jobs and 8 percent to more work on secondary jobs, the researchers suggest. Household chores, childcare, and other work activities at home eat up another 25 percent. The rest of their time savings go to indoor and outdoor leisure activities, including exercise. “The picture, then, is one in which those [who] WFH devote most of their savings in commuting time to nonleisure activities—work for pay, but also chores, home improvement, and childcare,” the researchers write. 

They draw their conclusions from three surveys of 10,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 who earned at least $20,000 in 2019. The researchers took the soundings in May, July, and August 2020, and reweighted the sampling to match the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey data by state, industry, and earnings.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they worked from home, almost 35 percent still went to business premises, and the rest were not working at all. The researchers’ estimates of time savings apply just to those who were actually working from home. 

Those without children were far more likely to devote newly freed-up time to leisure activities such as reading, watching TV, and being outdoors. The researchers find that those with children devoted 18 percent of their time savings to their kids. 

Analyzing the survey responses, Barrero, Bloom, and Davis find that employees who are able to work from home tend to be in jobs that require more education and pay higher wages. People who are saving the most time by not commuting during the pandemic tend be those who were doing well before the pandemic. 

They also find no large differences on the basis of gender or racial group, but they do observe that workers with less education are likely to devote more extra time to work. Those with a high-school diploma or less poured 32 percent of time savings into their primary jobs and an additional 15 percent into a second job, the researchers find. That’s almost twice as much as among people with more education, according to the research.

The surveys turned up one anomaly, the researchers observe. Those working from home reported an average of 32 hours a week on the job, compared with 36.4 hours at work before the pandemic. The difference amounts to 38 minutes a day, or 70 percent of the reduction in commuting time. How does that square with survey participants’ accounting for the time saved from commuting? The researchers suggest respondents were considering how they used their former specific commuting time slot without accounting for additional off-hours work.