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How Has the Pandemic Affected U.S. Work Life?

How Has the Pandemic Affected U.S. Work Life?

by Ellyn Maese and Lydia Saad

Story Highlights

  • Eight in 10 U.S. workers report doing their job differently during the pandemic
  • More than one-third say the disruption is making their job harder to do
  • Workers report less effective communication than at start of pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A year after the United States began an unprecedented shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation's unemployment rate remains nearly twice its pre-pandemic level, with 10 million Americans (6.2%) unemployed. The greatest proportion of this job loss is now considered to be "permanent job loss," rather than "temporary job loss."

Recent job loss has continued to be disproportionately evidenced in leisure and hospitality industries, and not surprisingly, some demographics, such as women, have been hit harder than others.

Nonetheless, nearly 70% of men and 57% of women aged 20 and older continue to actively participate in the labor force. Understanding their experiences over the past year is just as critical to the health and resilience of the economy.

The data reviewed here, based on Gallup's ongoing COVID-19 Panel tracking survey, shows the extent to which the work life of U.S. adults employed full or part time has been disrupted since March 2020.

  • Throughout the pandemic, roughly eight in 10 employees have said they are doing their job differently as a precaution.
  • About half of this group has said the changes have made their job harder to do, although the specific percentage has declined.
  • Remote work has waned since last spring, but nearly six in 10 continue to do their job remotely all, or some, of the time.

The data also reveal muted worker perceptions of how well their employer and manager have supported them through the disruption.

  • After higher initial reports last spring, roughly four in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to the pandemic and that their supervisor keeps them informed.
  • Also down from the earliest months of the pandemic, four in 10 strongly agree their employer cares about their wellbeing.
  • The majority of employees have a strong sense of trust from their manager.

Working Through Disruption

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most aspects of Americans' lives, including their work life. Gallup's COVID-19 tracking survey has revealed that most workers have changed how they do their job in order to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, and nearly half of those say it has made it harder to do their job.

These changes came immediately after the pandemic was declared a national emergency in mid-March 2020. In the first two weeks afterward, 72% of full- and part-time workers reported they had to change how they were doing their job. By April, that percentage had risen to 80%, and it has remained about that high ever since.

Job Different

Line graph. The percentage of American workers who are doing their jobs differently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, 78% of U.S. workers report they are doing their jobs differently during the pandemic.

In late March, 36% of Americans reported they were making changes to how they perform their job and that those changes made their job harder. By April, this rose to 44% and subsequently registered 40% or higher through October.

Since November, however, worker reports of difficulty have eased slightly, even though just as many workers continue to report doing their job differently. This could either be a sign that workers are getting accustomed to the changes or that refinements have been made that make those changes easier on workers.

Different Harder2

Line graph. The impact of doing work differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic on American workers. 41% of workers who say they are working differently report it does not make it harder to do their jobs, while 37% say it has made their job harder.

Feelings of job preparedness have shifted according to Gallup's monthly trends. After starting above 50% at the start of the pandemic, preparedness has fluctuated between 41% and 50% since May 2020.


Line graph. The percentage of American workers who say they strongly agree that they are prepared to do their job during the COVID-19 pandemic. 47% of workers currently strongly agree that they are prepared to do their job.

Throughout the pandemic, some groups of employees felt better prepared than others. Older and higher-income workers tended to report higher levels of job preparedness than younger and lower-paid workers:

  • 39% of those aged 18 to 34 strongly agree they felt well prepared, versus 46% of 35 to 54 and 54% of those 55 and older
  • The feeling of being well prepared rises from 35% of those earning less than $36,000 per year to 42% of those earning between $36,000 and $89,999 -- and to 49% among those earning $90,000 or more

The Great Migration to Remote Work

For the large majority of workers, COVID-19 fueled a change to their work location for at least some portion of 2020. Once again, the change was a massive shock to the system. Within just three weeks (mid-March to early April), the percentage of Americans working from home doubled from 31% to 62% as offices and schools shuttered to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

By April, a new question found 70% of workers said they were "always" or "sometimes" working remotely to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. For some, remote work was only temporary, as the rate subsided to 66% in May and 63% in June. After a leveling-off at 58% toward the end of summer, roughly that same percentage of working adults in the U.S. have continued to work remotely at least some of the time.


Line graph. The percentage of American workers who are always or sometimes working remotely to avoid contracting COVID-19. 58% of American workers report working remotely always or sometimes to avoid COVID-19.

While remote work is likely to eventually diminish even more, Gallup research indicates that a quarter of all U.S. workers (26%) would now ideally prefer to continue working remotely, if given a choice, when society fully reopens.

When Gallup first started asking remote workers for their preferences on staying remote in the future, many said they only wanted to continue the practice out of concern for getting COVID-19. But even with the rollout of vaccines, more say they want to continue working remotely because they prefer it.


Line graph. The percentage of U.S. workers who are currently working remotely and would prefer to continue doing so. 26% of American workers who are currently working remotely would prefer to do so once businesses and schools reopen.

Managing a Disrupted Workforce

To better understand the employee experience during COVID-19, Gallup has tracked the extent to which employees see their employers using three of the most effective tools they have at their disposal to support their employees: communication, concern for employees' wellbeing and creating a climate of trust. This analysis is based on employees working full or part time who are not primarily self-employed.

The 2020-2021 trends for each reveal the extent to which employers have been helping to bring out the best in their workers and how stable that foundation remained throughout the pandemic.

Continual communication. Starting at the onset of the pandemic, Gallup asked working adults about the communication they were receiving from their employer and their direct supervisor. Although it took some organizations time to formulate a cohesive response, by the end of March, half of employees strongly agreed that their employer had communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19. Similarly, around the same time, about half of employees strongly agreed that their immediate supervisor was keeping them informed about what was going on in their organization.

However, employee perceptions of both communication streams fell sharply in June and have since waned a bit further. Between the peak of communication in April and late February, we see more than a double-digit percentage-point drop in worker reports of strong communication from both companies and supervisors.


Line graph. U.S workers' views on workplace communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. 41% of workers who are working remotely strongly agree that their employers have communicated a clear plan of action. 37% of U.S. workers who are working remotely strongly agree their supervisor keeps them informed.

Keeping health and wellbeing front and center. Gallup has also been tracking Americans' opinions about whether the organization they work for cares about their wellbeing. Early on in the pandemic, about half of workers strongly agreed that their employer cared. Yet again, Gallup data show that employees' positive perceptions subsequently drifted downward, especially heading into the new year.

By December, there was more than a 10-percentage-point reduction in employee reports of feeling cared for compared with April/May, and it has since remained at that lower level.


Line Graph: U.S. workers' views that the leadership of their workplaces cares about their wellbeing. 37% of Americans strongly agree that the leadership of their organizations cares about their wellbeing.

Trust the talent. More recently, Gallup has been measuring the dimension of trust in the employee-manager relationship. Since September, more than half of employees have strongly agreed that their manager trusts them -- 55% on average -- with little month-by-month change seen.

Throughout the fall and winter months, employees who work remotely have reported higher levels of manager trust than employees who have been working onsite during this same period, 59% to 50%.

Why Employer Communication, Caring and Trust Matter

Employee engagement, which refers to workers' psychological commitment to their jobs and workplaces, is a critical barometer of the employee experience under normal times but is now especially important. Gallup research has demonstrated that employee engagement is an even stronger predictor of job performance during bad economic times, and that businesses with a higher percentage of engaged employees are more resilient during tough times.

Despite sharp declines in Americans' mental health this past year, along with increased stress and worry, employee engagement did not suffer the way many feared it would. There was some degree of volatility month-by-month in 2020, but on average, employee engagement was up slightly over the previous year. This continued a gradual upward trend that Gallup has been tracking for over a decade.

Analysis of the Gallup COVID-19 tracking data since last March finds that three key employer actions -- good communication (from both the employer and manager), prioritizing wellbeing, and trust -- have been strongly associated with employee engagement during the pandemic.

Relationship Between Workplace Experiences and Worker Engagement
Employees who strongly agree with each element are more likely to be engaged than those who do not strongly agree
Connection with employee engagement
My employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19 2.5x as likely to be engaged
My supervisor keeps me well informed about what's going
on in my organization
3.8x as likely to be engaged
My employer cares about my wellbeing 4.1x as likely to be engaged
My manager trusts me 6.0x as likely to be engaged
Based on U.S. adults employed full- or part-time

Communication and making sure workers feel prepared to do their job, wherever they are performing it, is fundamental to productivity. On average over the past year, "actively engaged" employees, as Gallup defines them, were about twice as likely as those "not engaged" to report that they felt well prepared to do their jobs during the pandemic -- 74% vs. 36%.

Another reason for sustained engagement in the face of personal hardships could be the big jump in the percentage of employees working remotely. Both before and since the pandemic, Gallup has found that employees who work remotely all or part of the time have higher engagement than those who never work remotely. Gallup research shows that frequent communication and feedback are particularly important to the engagement of workers who are not consistently onsite.

Trust may be particularly important for remote workers. Remote work affords a level of autonomy and flexibility that many remote workers enjoy. But the strain it can place on managers who are accustomed to in-person tactics for monitoring productivity and creating accountability can easily rub off on workers. An element of trust is critical to the long-term effectiveness of sustained remote work that will likely shape the post-pandemic workplace for years to come.

Bottom Line

From record job loss to an unprecedented mass-migration to remote work, the COVID-19 pandemic has upset the natural order of work in the United States. Employee engagement has remained intact, but that may partly reflect the increased percentage of employees working remotely during an otherwise challenging time.

Once remote work becomes less essential from a health standpoint, worker anxiety may increase over what the future of work will be. By focusing on communication, health, and wellbeing, and by building strong, trusting relationships, leaders and managers can keep workers engaged and productive amidst the uncertainty -- and through more disruption, should it come.

Learn more about how the Gallup Panel works.

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