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How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work

Updated: Apr 9

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About half of new teleworkers say they have more flexibility now; majority who are working in person worry about virus exposure

The abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces this past spring ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of employed Americans and may portend a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future. Most workers who say their job responsibilities can mainly be done from home say that, before the pandemic, they rarely or never teleworked. Only one-in-five say they worked from home all or most of the time. Now, 71% of those workers are doing their job from home all or most of the time. And more than half say, given a choice, they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.


While not seamless, the transition to telework has been relatively easy for many employed adults.1 Among those who are currently working from home all or most of the time, about three-quarters or more say it has been easy to have the technology and equipment they need to do their job and to have an adequate workspace. Most also say it’s been easy for them to meet deadlines and complete projects on time, get their work done without interruptions, and feel motivated to do their work.

To be sure, not all employed adults have the option of working from home, even during a pandemic. In fact, a majority of workers say their job responsibilities cannot be done from home. There’s a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework. Fully 62% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education say their work can be done from home. This compares with only 23% of those without a four-year college degree. Similarly, while a majority of upper-income workers can do their work from home, most lower- and middle-income workers cannot.2


Among those who are not currently teleworking all of the time, roughly eight-in-ten say they have at least some in-person interaction with other people at their workplace, with 52% saying they interact with others a lot. At least half of these workers say they’re concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus from the people they interact with at work or unknowingly exposing others. Even so, these workers are largely satisfied with the steps that have been taken at their workplace to protect them from exposure to the virus.

While the coronavirus has changed the way many workers do their job – whether in person or from home – it hasn’t significantly reshaped the culture of work for a majority of employed adults.

Among workers who are in the same job as they were before the coronavirus outbreak started, more than six-in-ten say they are as satisfied with their job now as they were before the pandemic and that there’s been no change in their productivity or job security. Even higher shares say they are just as likely now to know what their supervisor expects of them as they were before and that they have the same opportunities for advancement.

For workers who are working from home all or most of the time now but rarely or never did before the pandemic (and are in the same job they had pre-pandemic), there have been some clear upsides associated with the shift to telework. About half (49%) say they now have more flexibility to choose when they put in their hours. This is substantially higher than the share for teleworkers who were working from home all or most of the time before the pandemic, only 14% of whom say they have more flexibility now. In addition, 38% of new teleworkers say it’s easier now to balance work with family responsibilities (vs. 10% of teleworkers who worked from home before the coronavirus outbreak). On the downside, 65% of workers who are now teleworking all or most of the time but rarely or never did before the pandemic say they feel less connected to their coworkers now. Among more seasoned teleworkers, only 27% feel this way.

The nationally representative survey of 10,332 U.S. adults (including 5,858 employed adults who have only one job or have multiple jobs but consider one to be their primary) was conducted Oct. 13-19, 2020, using the Center’s American Trends Panel.3 Among the other key findings:

A majority (64%) of those who are currently working from home all or most of the time say their workplace is currently closed or unavailable to them; 36% say they are choosing not to go to their workplace.4 When asked how they would feel about returning to their workplace if it were to reopen in the month following the survey, 64% say they would feel uncomfortable returning, with 31% saying they would feel very uncomfortable. For those who are choosing to work from home even though their workplace is available to them, majorities cite a preference for working from home (60%) and concern over being exposed to the coronavirus (57%) as major reasons for this.

Younger teleworkers are more likely to say they’ve had a hard time feeling motivated to do their work since the coronavirus outbreak started. Most adults who are teleworking all or most of the time say it has been at least somewhat easy for them to feel motivated to do their work since the pandemic started. But there’s a distinct age gap: 42% of workers ages 18 to 49 say this has been difficult for them compared with only 20% of workers 50 and older. The youngest workers are among the most likely to say a lack of motivation has been an impediment for them: 53% of those ages 18 to 29 say it’s been difficult for them to feel motivated to do their work.

Parents who are teleworking are having a harder time getting their work done without interruptions.Half of parents with children younger than 18 who are working at home all or most of the time say it’s been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions since the coronavirus outbreak started. In contrast, only 20% of teleworkers who don’t have children under 18 say the same. Mothers and fathers are about equally likely to say this has been difficult for them.

Teleworkers are relying heavily on video conferencing services to keep in touch with co-workers, and there’s no evidence of widespread “Zoom fatigue.” Some 81% of employed adults who are working from home all or most of the time say they use video calling or online conferencing services like Zoom or Webex at least some of the time (59% use these often). And 57% use instant messaging platforms such as Slack or Google Chat (43% use these often). Among those who use video conferencing services often, 63% say they are fine with the amount of time they spend on video calls; 37% say they are worn out by it. In general, teleworkers view video conferencing and instant messaging platforms as a good substitute for in-person contact – 65% feel this way, while 35% say they are not a good substitute.

Among employed adults who are not working from home all of the time and are interacting in-person at least some with others at their workplace, concerns about coronavirus differ by gender, race and ethnicity. Women (60%) are more likely than men (48%) to be at least somewhat concerned about being exposed to the virus. And Black (70%) and Hispanic (67%) workers are more likely to be concerned than White workers (48%). In addition, Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than White workers to be very satisfied with the measures that their workplace has taken to protect them from being exposed to the coronavirus.


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