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STATE OF PLAY

How work has changed a year into the pandemic

Elena Xausa for Quartz
Published Last updated

A little over a year after the start of a global pandemic, the dramatic and lasting impact that the Covid-19 crisis has had on the workplace is coming into focus. Some of the consequences of the mass migration to remote work were entirely predictable. For example, companies and employees alike have had time to consider the pros and cons of the office, in terms of cost, physical layout (popular open floor plans mean viruses can easily float between staff) and its effect on internal communication. What wasn’t as obvious was how remote work itself would affect our lives and workplace culture.

This time last year, Quartz reached out to several experts to ask what they saw coming. We talked about the fate of diversity and equity efforts, the future of home offices, employee activism, and our ongoing pursuit of work-life balance. Now that a year has passed, we decided to check in again with several of the same experts to judge how accurately or not we had portrayed the future of work. We also asked our experts again: What’s next?

Ultimately, what we hope to discern is whether the pandemic and its subsequent changes has made work better—more equitable and inclusive, and more humane. We think it has, though it has also made work harder, at least in the short term, and it remains to be seen whether the corporate world will close racial and gender gaps laid bare by events of the past year.

But read through our interviews and judge for yourself.

The predictions we got right

Even conventional companies, like big banks, would embrace flexibility

People would miss their office social life more than they imagined

The boundaries of work and life would blur, but we’d come to appreciate rest

We’d invest in building better home offices and “hybrid” headquarters

What we got wrong

Employee activism would drop off

Gig workers would finally be given sick days and other benefits

We still can’t make these calls

Diversity in the rank and file would improve

Diversity in leadership would decline

Productivity could go either way

Companies will be forced to close the gaps in how different classes of workers are treated

Managers would learn to trust their employees

The predictions we got right

Even conventional companies, like big banks, would embrace flexibility

What we said: Pre-Covid, at many large firms, the ability to work from home had been a privilege, if allowed at all. But Darren Murph, head of remote work culture at GitLab, the all-remote software development platform, predicted that the need to shift employees to remote work en masse would “be enough to permanently change the work-from-home narrative,” even among the most conventional of companies. Employers wouldn’t go back to having staff come together in the same building (known as the co-located model) after seeing how a distributed workforce reduced a firm’s exposure to unpredictable public health risks, but also political disruptions and natural disasters, he said; and employees would no longer tolerate inflexible policies.

What’s actually happening: Murph’s thoughts were prescient. Several large firms—Twitter and Dropbox among them—have indeed announced that working remotely is now a permanent option, if not the only one. Many more employers, including Citibank, Salesforce, and Amazon, have adopted the “hybrid” model for the foreseeable future: Employees will be invited into the office for two or three days per week but will otherwise work remotely. Financial services company TIAA is dividing employees into four groups: those that will be all-remote, all co-located, mostly working from home, or mostly working from the office. For now, most companies are aiming to operate their offices at 10% or 20% capacity, though that might change in the future.

Looking ahead, says Murph, pay attention to “the split between companies who decide to allow remote and those who support remote” work. The first group will probably see their Glassdoor ratings drop, because “if they don’t actually re-architect their workflows, it’s going to be very difficult for those outside of the office to contribute and be promoted in the same way, so they are going to feel biased against just showing up for work every day.” Companies that support work-from-anywhere policies, on the other hand, will audit their workflow, look at their meeting hygiene, and say, “‘We’re going to do everything we can to make it equitable, so that work is as location-agnostic as possible,’” he adds. Those companies will become popular places to work, he believes, especially among parents and people caring for elders who will be first to say “Hallelujah!”

Indeed, one recent survey of 5,000 workers in the UK showed that people see the ability to work remotely at least part of the week as a benefit worth 6% of their salary. But Murph and others have concerns about the hybrid model: He advises smaller companies considering that path to keep all executives out of the office “so they send the right signal that the office is not the epicenter of power. The office is not the place where you come to get promoted.”

And if a company chooses to go remote but its lease doesn’t end for another 40 years? Murph says it should turn the office into an experiential center, a museum, or an internship center for underserved youth. Employees should interpret a company’s stubborn commitment to getting people back into the office simply because they don’t want to change their systems as a red flag.

But if companies’ new remote work policies encourage employees to leave big cities for less expensive environs, it’s not a great idea to pay them less, as some companies have started to do.

People would miss their office social life more than they imagined

What we said: Going remote would make it hard “for people to feel like they’re part of the company culture,” said David Berndt, legal counsel at G&A Partners, an HR outsourcing firm. “It’s just much harder when you’re not rubbing shoulders with people day-to-day.” That lack of connection would damage productivity and morale.

What’s actually happening: Indeed, one of the repercussions of a remote environment is the loss of social connection for many workers. Staying home for work has given rise to loneliness and isolation, negatively impacting mental health. And “it has changed the whole dynamic for people who are single,” says Berndt.

That said, many employers are looking for creative ways to fill the socializing void, whether providing virtual cooking classes or virtual meet-ups or access to mental health resources. Also in the mix are startups looking to bring work mingling online in formats other than Zoom.

The boundaries of work and life would blur, but we’d come to appreciate rest

What we said: Our sources predicted that leaning on messaging tools like Slack and other tech platforms would engender an “always on” culture. “Productivity might suffer if workers can’t figure out the right work-personal life alignment,” we wrote. Zapier CEO Wade Foster said managers might worry about their teams not working enough, but they will instead encounter the opposite problem: remote employees working even longer hours than they should be.

Dawna Ballard, a communications professor at University of Texas at Austin and a scholar of chronemics (the study of time and communication), imagined that the pandemic would prompt people to think more deeply about where they put their energy and why.

Companies would also feel compelled to emphasize rest and the importance of taking sick days, not only to reduce presenteeism, but to protect the physical health of employees. Gone were the days of showing up to work even when we were sick.

What’s actually happening: Our sources mostly got this right. Studies show that people are working longer hours—even at companies like Zapier, which was completely remote even before the pandemic. Foster says that to help his employees better manage their workload, the company has been trying to get people to develop prioritization as a skill, so they spend time working on things that matter and not on things that have less value. “If you’re running at 100% all the time,” Foster says, “you’ll constantly be in reaction mode.”

Ballard, meanwhile, has found that presenteeism, instead of abating, “has simply gone remote.” She now calls it “remoteeism,” and it may even be more widespread, she says, partly because of logistics—that everyone is already at home makes it “easier for people and organizations to rationalize working while sick or while recovering,” she says—and because “our nervous systems are frazzled.” Remoteeism, however, can lead to mistakes and more burnout.

“We have been in a constant state of fight-flight-freeze,” Ballard says now. With the boundaries around our health gone, “we may not even be cognizant of our overwork at some level.”

On the bright side, more companies also have come to understand how insidious burnout can be. What’s more, says Ballard, work’s virtual creep into our private spaces has forced people to be more authentic with each other and drop the facades enabled by firm boundaries.

We’d build better home offices and “hybrid” headquarters

What we said: By this time last year, a handful of major companies had already announced beefed-up home office budgets for employees. We expected to see more of this as remote work was normalized. Berndt, counsel at the HR outsourcing firm, also imagined that “more companies may adopt a hybrid model, with a physical office where new hires can get onboarded and work from initially, and remote setups for employees who need or prefer it.”

What actually happened: Berndt was just as surprised as anyone that he was right. As he describes it, human resources and leadership teams are recognizing that things will never be like the way they were before—particularly the expectation that everybody has to be in the office. “People working remotely hasn’t been as detrimental as they anticipated it would be,” he says, “basically forc[ing] employers to recognize that their employees can work remotely.” In the future, he says, instead of people being in the office five days a week, they might only have to go one or two days a week. That could bring about more shared workspaces, or a “hoteling situation” in which people occupy whatever space is available on a given day as opposed to having a dedicated desk.

So in which industries will offices look the most different? Berndt says that high-tech companies and companies where most of the work is done online—the types of companies “where people can do their job really from anywhere as long as they have a computer and an internet connection”—are the ones most likely to be remote in some form. Recent data from Indeed shows that of the job postings that mentioned remote or at-home work, IT operations, help desks, software development, and legal are the sectors with the highest share. In Feb. 2021, 6.9% of all US postings on the jobs site Indeed were for remote positions versus 2.9% in Jan. 2020, suggesting that while permanently remote situations are becoming more common, many businesses will still expect people to show up in person.

In recent months, Silicon Valley companies have been offering employees moving allowances to leave expensive cities that once held offices, and relocate to lower-cost areas where they work remotely. “We’re seeing those types of things as people recognize that they can improve their employees’ quality of life by getting them out of these high-cost, intense living areas like New York City and Silicon Valley,” Berndt says.

But a lot still needs to be learned. He says he had clients call about wanting to onboard a new employee but not knowing how to do so in a 100% virtual work environment. Virtual or not, he says, “managers really need to be sensitive to each of their employees and what’s most conducive for them to get their job done.”

What we got wrong

Employee activism would drop off

What we said: We were pessimistic about employee activism last year. Scholars know that in-person gatherings “build the strongest connections over time and may be necessary for a movement to be transformative,” we wrote. “Besides, some goals of activist projects already feel less urgent, with the obvious exception of those that protect jobs and income.” 

What’s actually happening: In the past year, there was increased activism and organizing during the pandemic, fueled in part by essential workers—from grocery workers to Instacart shoppers—protesting working conditions and low pay. In March 2020, Amazon warehouse workers in Long Island walked off, demanding a shutdown and cleaning of the facility. Now a year later, a union election is underway at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, which could pave the way for the first union at the company. Organizing is happening within white-collar workplaces, too—earlier this year, a group of Google workers formed a union, which includes contractors. But since the union wasn’t federally certified, it’s not clear whether the company will have to negotiate with them.

During an economic downturn, waves of workers striking are uncommon, economists say. But the pandemic has concentrated the spotlight, and the public’s reliance, on a sector of the economy where the usual forces of supply and demand, as well as risk and reward, suddenly seem off balance. Part of the reason workers now are organizing is because “in a lot of these situations, it really is a question of life and death, or health or sickness,” says Terri Gerstein, a project director at Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program.

The virtual environment also means that workers do not need to physically be present to take a stand. Last April, Instacart workers demanded better pay and protections from the grocery delivery company by not turning on their apps. And as Gerstein points out, it’s much easier to mobilize workers if it just means joining a Zoom meeting instead of attending a meeting in person.

Gig workers would finally be given sick days and other benefits

What we said: Last year, Yong Kim, CEO of Wonolo, a staffing platform that connects contingent workers to companies like Walmart, Uniqlo, and Coca-Cola, envisioned a future in which coalitions organized by job type would pool their resources and buy benefits for gig workers. We were hopeful that more companies would also find ways to provide necessary benefits for employees.

What actually happened: The pandemic has been a win for Uber and Lyft—and less so for gig workers who want more benefits. The passage of ballot initiative Proposition 22 in California essentially exempted the gig companies from needing to re-classify drivers and delivery workers as employees with benefits like health insurance and workers’ compensation. Instead, workers will receive limited benefits including healthcare subsidies and accident insurance, some reimbursement to account for gas and other vehicle costs, and a “minimum earnings guarantee” equal to 120% of the minimum wage applied to the drivers’ “engaged” time (defined as the time between accepting a ride request and completing the trip). The CEOs of gig companies have expressed wanting to take this model beyond California.

There’s no reason that Uber and Lyft “should be exempt from the rules that every company has to follow,” says Gerstein. She adds that “lots of innovative companies have been able to operate and thrive while still paying unemployment taxes [and] while still paying for Social Security.” If anything, the pandemic also showed how critical unemployment insurance was for gig workers, who for the first time were able to collect it.

Kim still believes gig work is here to stay and will grow. At Wonolo, he says, workers get a living wage as well as access to insurance. “There is a lot more that we can do, that we just need to do. But it’s a step in the right direction,” he says.

We still can’t make these calls

Diversity in the rank and file would improve

What we said: GitLab’s Murph was eager for companies to see the benefit of recruiting for remote jobs from across regions. Having geographic diversity would naturally lead to more racial and socioeconomic diversity, he said, and give people who are deeply tied to their communities a chance to fill jobs normally reserved for big-city dwellers. Caretakers of all kinds would also stand to benefit, we wrote, as would people with disabilities or illnesses “that they might not even be comfortable sharing.”

What actually happened: Conversations about race and diversity certainly have taken on a new urgency in the US and abroad, largely because of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, and the reckoning of the long history of violence against Black Americans it inspired. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color—and rising concern about violence against Asian Americans—has also inspired companies like Apple, PwC, GM, Peloton, and Airbnb to dedicate more money and and attention to diversity and inclusion initiatives, forge partnerships with civil rights groups, and boost their support of  minority-owned businesses to help close racial gaps. Some companies, including Spotify, have also highlighted work-from-anywhere policies as tools for boosting diversity.

Over the next year or so, data will reveal how much has actually changed. Anecdotally, however, Murph feels heartened by the way company leaders in his circles have embraced geographic diversity. Recruiters tend to know the tech communities in Singapore, London, New York, and San Francisco “like the back of their hand,” he says, but the talent they’ve discovered in Reno or Boise has been an epiphany for many. Executives he has spoken to note that in an all-remote world, “it is so much easier to hire. We get people that are bought in from day one because the first thing we ask them isn’t to uproot their entire family and trust us.”

That isn’t to say that work-from-anywhere policies have solved all inclusion issues. Last year, Johnny Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) was most concerned about how remote work would affect diversity in leadership, but now he’s also worried about the disorganized ways that companies think about diversity writ large.

The big debate coming out of 2020 is whether corporate leaders should focus on the hot diversity topics of the day, such as racial justice and gender equity, or if they ought to be more broadly focused on creating a workforce that represents people of all ages, abilities, socioeconomic characteristics, orientations, and more. Choosing one or the other approach to diversity comes with trade-offs: Thinking too broadly may mean you don’t fix the most obvious problems. But thinking too narrowly, he adds, means you may overlook other populations and intersectionality. After all, our life experiences generally are shaped by more than one defining trait of our identity—for example, a person can face discrimination as a woman and a person of color, or as an older employee who is also disabled.

Taylor’s other big realization from the past year—and in the wake of a contentious US election—is that political diversity ought to be added to the list of “urgent” topics on a company’s agenda. In fact, if he had to rank the issues that companies should care about most, he would suggest race, gender, and political diversity, in that order. “The belief that companies don’t really have to address this, or that it’s been addressed because the [US] presidential election is over, is naive,” he tells Quartz. However, he also cautions that we must brace ourselves for conversations that can get uglier than those around racial equity, because unlike race or gender, political beliefs are not a protected class under anti-discrimination laws. “It’s not illegal to say to someone, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I will have nothing to do with you anymore because you’re a Democrat or Republican,’” Taylor adds, “and people do it.”

Diversity in leadership would decline

What we said: The rush to go hybrid or remote would make it even more difficult to elevate underrepresented people into leadership roles, SHRM’s Taylor said last year. If more women and people of color were to choose to work off-site, whether because of parenting or caregiving obligations, they’d drop off the radar of those now in power across most industries: white men.

What actually happened: We have already seen a dramatic drop in the number of women who have left the workforce in the US (more than 2.3 million since Feb. 2020), and now Black and Hispanic women are being left out of the job recovery. Taylor remains worried that in an all-remote or hybrid work world, these groups and others from marginalized communities will find themselves less promotable and less able to work their way up the ranks to higher salaries and more influential roles because they are not being seen, literally, by senior management.

It’s just human nature to have better relationships with the people you’re interacting with daily, he says, and those are the people whose achievements and competencies will be recognized and rewarded. To Taylor, we’d be fooling ourselves to believe that working at home wouldn’t put some already-underrepresented populations at an even greater disadvantage thanks to the well-documented problem of proximity bias. “Proximity goes a long way, and companies are doing their best to try to fill that gap,” but we call cyberspace virtual reality because it’s not reality, he says. “There is a difference.”

Productivity could go either way

What we said: Last year, we felt it wasn’t possible to gauge whether productivity would suffer. Ben Waber, president and co-founder of the workplace analytics firm Humanyze, had reservations about too much working from home, feeling the practice should be reserved for periods when uninterrupted, focused work is required. He feared that allremote work would lead to lower productivity. Darren Murph countered: All-remote teams don’t have to roam the hall looking for one another and can communicate easily in real time or asynchronously when the right norms are in place. For example, GitLab employees document all conversations, even those that seem mundane, so that those who couldn’t be there at the time can always stay in the loop and find the information they’re looking for.

What actually happened: We may have missed the signs that productivity would tick up, but that’s also not the whole story.

In one sense, as Murph says, “the pendulum has swung to the complete opposite side, which is, ‘Our people are so productive, we’re worried that they’re just going to keel over.’” GitLab, feeling that strain, has instituted a “Family and Friends Day,” a deliberate structure that encourages employees to take a Friday off every month. Likewise, Slack created “Friyay” for the same reason, while LinkedIn recently announced that it would give staff a whole week’s vacation in April. Productivity isn’t the issue, “it’s getting people to take care of them themselves,” Murph argues.

And yet that will change as companies adjust to remote work rather than port over their habits from their co-located, pre-pandemic days. Companies that don’t give employees the autonomy they need to organize their own schedules will lose employees who seek the freedom—to walk their dog in the middle of the day, or to work one week a year from a ski resort—that remote work can offer.

Waber likewise believes that measuring productivity while we’re still in a pandemic may  lead CEOs to premature conclusions—only he is more concerned that companies will choose to go fully remote because they’re too optimistic about productivity. For example, in previous data about remote work, there wasn’t any indication that people would end up spreading out their calls and meetings over the course of a long day, the way we have, he says; but while this may be convenient during the pandemic, it’s also stressful to be on all the time, and it’s harder to bring teams together to make decisions or share information. “If you take an extra day to schedule a meeting, that compounds over time, and that is essentially how quickly you can spread information and again a real concern is the speed of information flow, people getting on the same page,” Waber says.

On a positive note, data show that people seem to be spending more time with their “strong ties,” those people they need to speak to daily as part of their job. However, we’re now interacting with half as many “weak ties” (people we speak to for 15 minutes or less per week), Waber adds. Naturally, a single individual or group may not notice a reduction in weak ties, but over time, that change may mean fewer opportunities to swap information about what other parts of the company are doing and lead to fewer openings for spontaneous acts of invention and creativity. Even when companies have made specific interventions to increase those weak ties, with virtual happy hours for example, his data show that the impact only lasts four to six weeks.

Last year Waber also predicted that the one form of communication that’s least likely to survive the move to online was that which flows directly between employees and top leadership or front-line managers, in either direction—all the casual but often valuable conversations that can happen organically in a physical space. “Right now, you’re not going to Slack the CEO, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’” he said then. “You could, but data says it doesn’t happen.” He hypothesizes that online communication doesn’t invite enough conversations between all levels of an organization.

Companies will be forced to close the gaps in how different classes of workers are treated

What we said: “I’d like to think that some major corporations and decision-makers will insist upon paid sick leave going forward—not just in a crisis,” Harvard’s Gerstein told Quartz last year.

What actually happened: The conditions of essential workers were laid bare during the pandemic. But how much progress was made to close the gaps for the lowest-wage workers? Employers like Target and Best Buy raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Costco raised its starting wage to $16.

While companies and governments concerned themselves with wages, they lost focus of the fact that workers’ health was clearly at danger throughout the pandemic, as Gerstein points out.

While the city of Seattle mandated both hazard pay and sick leave for workers, and many retailers and supermarkets implemented temporary hazard pay, the pandemic has made the case for a number of new, progressive federal policies. In March, the US House passed a bill that would provide protections for workers trying to unionize, a measure that is considered to be the labor movement’s biggest legislative priority in Congress.

It’s also becoming clearer how much unemployment aid is a “critical lifeline” for families, she says.

Managers would learn to trust their employees

What we said: The coronavirus pandemic would “force managers to reckon with their suspicious minds,” Art Langer, executive director of the Center for Technology Management at Columbia University, said one year ago. Managers and C-suite leaders would have to accept that individuals are behaving like reliable, productive adults in their home offices, and that employees can be granted more autonomy to manage, strategize, and even make mistakes without top-down oversight.

What’s actually happening: A global study conducted early in the pandemic showed that managers of remote employees were having trust issues, though this was most true of those who felt less empowered by their own bosses.

Productivity-tracking software companies have also reported increased sales and usage. “There’s no question that there are places where people are maybe not as productive as they used to be,” says Langer, “But unfortunately, I never think that we should be spying on people.” Adopting tracking software is a sign of a cultural problem or flawed management, he says, and it doesn’t actually guarantee better productivity: Just because people seem like they’re working, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily being productive.

Arguably, companies either have been or will be compelled to rethink management for remote teams, emphasizing outputs and performance over volume and simple presence (or what Ballard calls “remoteeism” at work.) It’s unclear whether trust or tracking will dominate in the new work world. Langer’s advice to managers is this: “Don’t micromanage, but pay attention to the details,” he says. “Some people might view that as an oxymoron, but it’s not.” The details simply show whether people are putting in the appropriate amount of time and energy or cutting corners. We won’t wager today on which way you and your colleagues will go.