What the Numbers Tell Us About Work Right Now

Drastic changes caused by the pandemic have created a totally different job landscape in 2020, affecting productivity, diversity, mental health and more

By Rachel Feintzeig

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG

We worked from our kitchen tables, or donned masks to do our jobs. 

Our vocabulary changed: We learned what PPE was, and that some roles were essential. Protests, the racial justice movement and a historic election shook the country. We felt stressed, lonely; we lost our jobs or had to leave them.

It’s been a wild year that’s transformed work. To try to capture the breadth of what’s changed, and understand where we might be heading, I turned to the numbers: surveys, economic data and research papers.

They tell the story of women dropping out of the workforce in droves, companies catalyzed—at least on the surface—by the death of George Floyd, and a country where a quarter of households have had someone laid off. They point to a future where those who don’t have to don’t go into an office, at least not every day. Here’s our year at work, by the numbers.


Productive…at a cost


We’re getting our work done, but we feel pretty miserable. 

In a September survey of 330 human resources leaders by the Conference Board, 47% of respondents reported an increase in productivity at their companies, while only 13% reported a drop. 

But 60% said their employees are working more hours and 63% said their employees are spending more time in meetings. 

Four out of 10 reported more mental health problems among workers.

Part of it is surely the work itself—we’re exhausted from back-to-back video calls, without even a commute as buffer between work and life. We’re scared of losing our livelihoods. And then there’s the health crisis: 78% of participants in an American Psychological Association survey of 3,409 adults said the pandemic was a significant source of stress, so it’s no surprise that’s bleeding into our work lives.

What might help? Some employers say they’re planning to discount mental health services next year. And some employees say it’s time for a change. A November survey by public relations firm Weber Shandwick finds that 66% of people polled were planning to make a shift like switching jobs, moving out of town or cutting their hours to part-time as the pandemic wears on.

Realizing diversity needs

The Black Lives Matter movement certainly got corporate executives talking more about race and inequality. The share of organizations where leaders and employees say diversity and inclusion is a value or priority rose to 72% in 2020 from 65% in 2019, according to a continuing PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. At the same time, a third of respondents agree that diversity is a barrier to progression at their organizations, up from 28% in 2019.

Companies have taken steps like designating Juneteenth a paid holiday in 2021 (10% of those surveyed by XpertHR, an online provider of compliance guidance) and creating formal mentoring programs for underrepresented employee groups (42% of those surveyed by human resources organization WorldatWork.) 

But this statistic really stood out to me: More than half of people surveyed by Weber Shandwick reported that their company “says all the right things about diversity, equity and inclusion, but does not do what they say.”

Employees seem hungry for real action. Three-quarters of those participating in the Weber Shandwick survey said they want their employer to commit to fight racism, discrimination and unconscious bias, and 82% want a commitment to fair pay. We’ll see if 2021 brings more than just words.


Job news, most of it bad


The economic crisis continues affecting our paychecks. Almost a third of the companies surveyed by the Conference Board had deferred pay increases or bonuses to workers, and another 8% planned to do so before the end of the year. A similar number of firms had conducted permanent layoffs. A quarter had furloughed workers and a fifth had frozen all hiring.

The unemployment rate jumped more in three months—from 3.8% in February to 13% in May—than it did in two years of the last recession, according to an analysis of government data by Pew Research Center. It stands at 6.7%.

Another survey from Pew, of 13,200 Americans in August, found that one in four had either been laid off or had someone in their household lose their job. And yet the Conference Board survey suggests that finding workers is tough, especially in industries like construction and transportation. 

Some of those counted in unemployment figures aren’t really looking for work, the business research group hypothesizes. Instead, concerns about exposure or child-care responsibilities are keeping them from taking on jobs.

Trials for working parents

Remote school and day-care closures have left parents with a heavy burden. The solution many families have landed on: Mom quits her job. Some 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September, the start of the academic year, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the National Women’s Law Center. 

That’s compared with 216,000 men.

Despite nearly half a million women rejoining the workforce in October, women held 5.5 million fewer jobs that month than they did in February, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The unemployment rate is especially high for Black and Hispanic women.

Employers seem reluctant to provide much substantive support for working parents. 

Many report allowing things like flexible hours but are far less generous with benefits like paid leave. 

In a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey, 4% of 790 organizations surveyed said they’d offered financial assistance for child care, and most were unwilling or equivocal about increasing their company’s investment in child care.

Remote work forever


For years, it existed as an afterthought, or even a secret in many corporate jobs. 

Remote work was the hushed arrangement for a new parent returning from leave, the one-off negotiation for a longtime colleague moving to California.

Now, it’s gone mainstream. The number of working days Americans spend at home has increased eightfold with the pandemic, according to an analysis by Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Nearly 34% of Americans were working from home in November, according to a Stanford survey of 2,500 people.

Once the threat of the coronavirus has subsided, we may not be going back—at least not to the way things were. 

The average employee wants to work from home twice a week after the pandemic, according to a continuing Stanford survey. Workers and employers have invested in the new way of working, from buying furniture to learning to use videoconferencing software.

The stigma once associated with remote work is fading. We all see it’s not just watching Netflix while occasionally shooting off an email. 

Forced to try something new, we’ve realized some change isn’t so bad.

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