I wouldn’t claim to be a workaholic — the word is ugly and glib. But as I enter my sixth decade, I am finally starting to own up to some bad work habits. Unlike my father, who would head to the office in the morning, come home in the evening and almost never work outside those hours, I might work anywhere and at any time. I draw the line at the bedroom. I never work in the bedroom. But other than that, I tend to let work seep into everything.
I realise this is nothing to be proud of. It’s also nothing unusual. Technology has been a great enabler of poor work hygiene. My father, who installed and programmed mainframe computers, would have struggled to do much useful work from the dining-room table. But for many knowledge workers today, that option is always available. The lines between work and play become so blurred that not only is work less productive, but leisure is less fun.
Of course, it is useful to be able to work from anywhere, to answer work emails while queueing at the supermarket, to tick off a couple of tasks while on the train, or to write reports and attend meetings during a pandemic lockdown. But convenience always breeds temptation. Soon enough, we are not only working during dead time, but while we should be relaxing, paying attention to our loved ones or having fun.
Workers win as well as lose from this. Your employer may be tempting you to answer emails while cooking for your family or demanding that you perform midnight research for your boss instead of joining your partner between the sheets. But what goes around comes around. In retaliation, you can goof off at your desk by playing a video game, gazing blankly at TikTok, or shopping online.
Or you can go and play golf. Several of my colleagues have noticed the most delightful yet infuriating academic finding of the year: researchers at Stanford University discovering that “working from home has powered a huge boom in golfing”. That boom is most visible midweek and mid-afternoon. For example, golfing on Wednesdays rose nearly 150 per cent between 2022 and 2019, while golfing at 4pm on Wednesday afternoons is up more than 275 per cent. This surge is less about the growing popularity of golf than about a change in golfing habits: golfing on Saturdays was slightly less popular in 2022 than it was in 2019.
“The most likely explanation,” write researchers Alex Finan and Nick Bloom, “is that employees are golfing as breaks while working from home.” Well, indeed.
This discovery brings a bitter joy. Golf reeks of privilege and, since the ability to work from home is also a privilege, this story is a double-decker privilege sandwich. On the other hand, there’s something delicious about the thought of any worker finding a way to play truant. Many of us struggle to stake out enough leisure time in our lives. Playing, relaxing, enjoying ourselves . . . these are things that no longer seem to come naturally.
It is good to see the golfers standing up for their right to have fun. It was during the first lockdown that I realised just how bad my own work habits had become and how frequently, pre-pandemic, I had been saved from drifting towards the desk by my countervailing habit of making firm plans to do other things, such as to go out for dinner or see a concert. All too often during lockdown, I would take a break for dinner and then head straight back to work. True, I was trying to convince myself during a difficult time that my number-crunching was somehow important. But, mostly, the work crept in when I hadn’t taken the time to think of something better to do.
As the world started opening up again, I was determined to remember the lesson. I have been trying to fill my leisure time with sufficiently compelling activities that the question of working simply doesn’t arise. It’s hard, not to mention rude, to check your phone while walking or having dinner with friends. Intense sport is perfect, as is going to a place where only a fool would check their phone, whether a swimming pool or a symphony hall.
As Benjamin Hoff presciently wrote in The Tao of Pooh (1982): “It’s really great fun to go someplace where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find that you have lots of time.”
What has changed since the pandemic is the awkward question of what office hours should be. Before, if you had a job, then you’d swim in the morning, evening or at the weekend. Now you might fancy a dip on Thursday afternoon. Who gets to decide whether you can? Who will even know?
In a world where so many people catch up with emails at 6am or midnight or both, it’s not clear to me that the worker who does yoga or golf in the middle of a working day is doing anything unreasonable. (This is not legal advice!)
What disheartens me about the golfers is that some of them are letting the side down. Surely one of the benefits of a good game — of golf or anything else — is to get away from workplace tasks for a while. But the golf course has long been a venue for business discussions, and it seems that has not changed: Finan and Bloom quote one tech executive whose colleague “was taking his Zoom call from the golf course. He was on mute and video off, but once when he was talking I heard somebody talking about the fairway and strokes.”
Attending a Zoom meeting from the golf course risks ruining both the meeting and the game of golf: proof that a righteous God exists, but definitely not an example for the rest of us to follow. At a time when all too many knowledge workers have forgotten the difference between work and play, we need to draw deliberate boundaries between the two.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 8 September 2023.
My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now available (not US or Canada yet – sorry).