At the Chelsea Piers outdoor golf club, on a recent unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, 55 people were playing golf by 3:45, and a handful were sipping beers. At CutLoose hair salon, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the stylists now watch their clients take Zoom meetings from the salon chairs. And at Skyway Golf Course, in Jersey City, N.J., Steve Mills, a general manager, has noticed that weekday afternoons are jammed with a new group of golfers.
“We call them the remote guys,” Mr. Mills, 48, said. “These were guys we used to see running to the golf course after work. Now they’re able to come out leisurely and get their golf done, instead of changing in the parking lot.”
The leisure industry is facing a surge in demand for afternoon services, especially in fitness and cosmetics. It’s the rise of the “afternoon fun” economy.
Millions of Americans who started working from home three years ago because of the Covid-19 pandemic are now set in those remote routines because they like the flexibility. At the start of 2023, more than a quarter of paid full-time work days were done from home, according to data from Stanford on U.S. workers. Roughly half of workers who can do their jobs remotely are now in hybrid arrangements. That means people who used to have to use their lunch hour, or wait until after work, to squeeze in a workout or beauty treatments can now extend their leisure time into the afternoon, and tack on extra hours of work after dark.
A new study from Stanford shines a light on the rise of afternoon leisure. Using geolocation data near golf courses in the United States, the study found there was 278 percent more people playing golf at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday in August 2022 than in August 2019. And there were 83 percent more golf games being played on a weekday in August 2022 than in August 2019, according to the researchers, Nick Bloom and Alex Finan, who studied data, from the company Inrix, at more than 3,400 golf courses.
“We’re turned into a student economy,” Mr. Bloom said. “You’re in the library in the evenings, and in the afternoon you’re sleeping off your hangover.”
The rise of afternoon leisure could be playing an under-examined role in driving America’s economic rebound since 2020, Mr. Bloom said. Historically, productivity in the manufacturing sector has grown at a faster rate than productivity in the services sector. Service sector productivity tends to grow slowly even as its wages rise quickly to keep pace with other industries. That’s because the amount of time people can devote to services — shopping, entertainment, beauty treatments — has long been constrained by the rigidity of a nine-to-five grind.
Remote work partly did away with that constraint. More flexible work arrangements mean workers can decide to push back their professional responsibilities into the evening and take care of personal ones during the day — often with the blessing of their bosses.
“This is an amazing potential reversal,” Mr. Bloom added. “You can have a huge increase in productivity using leisure resources throughout the week. It’s an odd unexpected boost from post-pandemic working from home.”
The effects of this shift are being felt across the leisure economy. ClassPass, a platform that partners with thousands of fitness and beauty studios, found that the most popular time for people to schedule a salon or spa treatment last year was noon; in 2019, it was 6 p.m. The Chelsea Piers golf club, which had its busiest year ever in 2022, increased the fee for its off-peak membership (for people playing golf at traditionally less popular weekday hours) to $1,825 last year from $1,520 because of rising demand. Bouldering Project, which has 10 rock-climbing gyms in seven U.S. cities, said some of its buildings were full throughout the week with remote workers doing workouts in between their video calls. Y7, a yoga chain, has tracked a surge in sign ups for its 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekday classes.
“We used to get a lot more people leaving early from class in the morning — they wouldn’t stay for Shavasana,” Sarah Larson Levey, chief executive of Y7, said, referring to the final resting portion of a yoga class. “Literally right after the slow burn portion, before any restorative poses, half the room would leave.”
With more people now working remote, that exodus no longer occurs. “I took a 10:30 on Wednesday last week, and every single person stayed,” Ms. Larson Levey said. “I think 4 p.m. is going to be the new 7 p.m. when it comes to workouts.”
Joel Moore, owner of a golf club called the Ridge in New Jersey, found himself busier than ever in 2021. At one point, he and his wife looked at each other and realized what was driving their foot traffic: remote workers.
“We didn’t have a crystal ball to look into as we were budgeting for 2021 and 2022, and we were elated,” he said. “We’re seeing people during the week that we never saw before.”
There used to be a sizable portion of members whom Mr. Moore saw only on weekends, or occasionally on summer evenings when they came from the office and rushed into the locker room to change from dress shirts and blazers into polo shirts. Now many of his members, who include lawyers and pharmaceutical executives, wake up early in the morning to race through meetings so they can get to the golf course by lunch time.
“They’re not sneaking away,” he added. “They’re getting the work done, just not at your typical hours.”
Some golf course managers also noted that remote work had coincided with a push in the golfing world for shorter games. “Maybe people have a little bit more time, the interest is there and we’re able to morph the game a little bit to meet people’s schedules,” said Marshall Ormand, who manages a municipal golf course in Charleston, S.C.
Of course, many remote workers have reconfigured the shape of their workdays for the opposite of leisure: child care. People are working 28 percent more after the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, according to a report from Microsoft. For many working mothers, remote work didn’t initially bring any time for leisure. Mothers were more likely than fathers to be interrupted by family responsibilities while working from home, according to at least one study, a particular source of stress when schools were shut down because of Covid.
But now that schools are open, some workers are welcoming the opportunity to tackle errands during the weekday. Some of this extension of economic leisure is above board, as managers accept that people are rethinking their schedules.
Stephanie Cunningham, 27, who works in marketing, was sitting in CutLoose, the Brooklyn hair salon, waiting for an appointment on a Thursday afternoon. She said her boss has been supportive when she had to sign on earlier in the morning or later in the evening to get work done so that she could take a break to run errands, including grocery shopping and walking her dog.
“My boss allows me to take time for myself,” Ms. Cunningham said. “As long as I get my work done.”
Celiann Figueroa, 25, a stylist at CutLoose, said her weekdays were far busier than they were before the pandemic. She used to spend afternoons, at a different Brooklyn salon, waiting for her harried customers to leave the office. Now her noon to 4 p.m. slot is consistently full. Her daily appointment numbers have more than doubled.
Partly that’s because her clients are treating the salon like an office. “I’ve had a client sit outside with foils in her hair hosting a Zoom meeting,” she said, adding that she often has to adjust the position of people’s heads so they can look at their laptops while she styles their hair. “It’s funny seeing people sit up and try to be professional.”
And for some people straddling office and leisure, there’s a delight in the fusion. Tyler Kevorkian, the assistant general manager of Bouldering Project in Washington, D.C., said he had seen one person help run a gelato company from his gym. He has also seen government employees and lawyers writing memos steps away from the rock climbing walls.
“People just make this their office,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re working, you get antsy and anxious. You can go downstairs, do some pull-ups, sweat it out and then jump right back into a meeting.”
But plenty of business leaders are wary about this leisure-time expansion. In recent months, concerns about employee engagement have crept into executive commentary on remote work.
Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, which allowed many of its employees to work fully remote, voiced anxiety earlier this year about the effects of that decision: “We don’t have the same level of performance and productivity that we had in 2020 before the pandemic,” Mr. Benioff said.
At Amazon, Andy Jassy has been similarly emphatic about the benefits of in-person work: “When you’re in-person, people tend to be more engaged,” he wrote in a memo to employees last month. And at Jefferies, its chief executive, Rich Handler, and its president, Brian Friedman, sent a memo in the fall underscoring that they expected to see people in person: “It is abundantly clear that we need to be together as much as possible.”
But these executives are facing a work force newly emboldened by the balance they’ve achieved between their work and personal life, whether that means family obligations or playing golf. Take Wade McDaniel, a vice president at Gartner, who is one of the golfers embracing the benefits of the afternoon fun economy. Mr. McDaniel, 62, said he was a different version of himself before remote work.
“I would have been defined as a classic workaholic — that showed up in poor health, poor relationship management,” he said.
Now, Mr. McDaniel starts work at 5 a.m. and gets to his local golf course in Phoenix by 3 p.m. “Unless there’s something that is semi critical going on, I don’t take my work phone with me,” he said. “The only reason I use my phone is for the golf app.”