Has the Pandemic Changed Employee Behavior for the Better?

February 23, 2021・14 mins read
Has the Pandemic Changed Employee Behavior for the Better?

To say the pandemic has changed us would be an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic forced tectonic shifts to our social, familial, and professional lives, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever be the same again. When the novel coronavirus struck the United States with full force in March 2020, much of the conversation in public and private spheres revolved around the “return to normal.” We wanted to know when life would go on as it once had, and when we’d be able to again eat in restaurants, hug our friends, or return to the office. As time marched on, we came to understand that there would be no return to normal, and we began instead to talk about a new normal. Now, with the prospect of widespread vaccination on the horizon, we’re closer than ever to discovering how our new normal will look and feel. At work, this likely means a hybrid setting between the office and working remotely from home. Research by Gartner found that 82% of company leaders plan to continue to let employees work from home (WFH) some of the time post COVID-19. While it’s clear that the pandemic has certainly changed the world of work, many employers are wondering if the pandemic has altered employee behavior for the better. Let’s take a closer look.

Remote work and productivity

When it comes to measuring the effect of the pandemic on worker behavior, it’s no surprise internal and external researchers first turn to worker productivity. While remote work enthusiasts have long-heralded increased productivity as a perk of remote work, 2020 tested those claims on a large scale and over an extended timeline. Matt Monge, future of work expert and director of culture at On The Mark Strategies, a strategic marketing and branding firm, succinctly put it when asked if employee productivity had increased and behavior had changed for the better. “We can say conclusively that — drumroll, please — it depends,” he said. Some research shows big productivity gains amongst remote workers, while others not so much. Consider the following statistics:

  • HR and workplace consulting firm, Mercer, found that 94% of 800 employees surveyed reported productivity as the same or higher than it was pre-pandemic.
  • Statistica UK-based research showed that 73% of respondents believed they were more efficient when working from home during the pandemic.
  • Yet online business publication The Manifest found that only 30% of employees surveyed report being more productive when working from home.

Chief human resource officer at Rolf Bax said there’s a reason the stats can be confusing. “What does seem to be the case, according to the major studies that have been done by groups like McKinsey and PWC, is that those workers who were already highly self-motivated, and for whom commuting and the office environment represented stress, happiness and productivity have gone up.”

Many factors affect worker productivity

It may not just be employee attitude, personality type, and level of motivation pre-pandemic that determines levels of worker productivity. Thomas Jones, head of marketing at remote work consultancy Generation Digital said the sector is a telling sign whether companies have been able to be successful in increasing worker productivity. “This depends on the industry and how well equipped they have been to handle the shift. A lot also comes down to what organizations have done to improve work management and keep employees engaged and connected,” he said. Unsurprisingly, leaders in the tech space or organizations which had prioritized digital transformation efforts are likely to have fared better through the abrupt transition to working from home. “Companies who have handled this well are normally the ones who started to take remote working seriously pre-pandemic. Organizations with tools like Google Workspace, Slack, Asana, Teams, etc have been able to adapt,” Jones said.

“Companies who have handled this well are normally the ones who started to take remote working seriously pre-pandemic. Organizations with tools like Google Workspace, Slack, Asana, Teams, etc have been able to adapt.”

He said what they’ve seen as a remote work consultancy is that highly regulated industries, like healthcare, the public sector, and finance, initially struggled with worker productivity and the overall transition to a predominantly remote model, and are still working to catch up. “This is predominantly down to stricter needs in regards to cybersecurity, sensitive personal data and data loss prevention,” said Jones.

Other factors that contribute to increased worker productivity on remote teams

  • Ability to more deeply focus. A 2016 literature review of over 600 academic journal articles found that the open office environment favored by most organizations results in regular interruptions and distracting acoustics. While working from home is not without its own distractions — especially for employees who are also caregivers — it’s possible employees are finding more focused blocks of time to complete their work, thus increasing productivity.
  • Bolstered trust between management and employees. Without the in-person connection of a traditional office environment, managers and employees have had to develop new levels of trust, a component Derin Oyekan, co-founder of Reel Paper, singles out as a possible productivity booster. “I manage a remote team, and working remotely has been an incredible trust-building exercise between management and employees. Once we developed that trust, our productivity (and happiness) definitely increased.” Turns out, Oyekan could be right. The 2017 Harvard Business Review article The Neuroscience of Trust found that individuals at high-trust companies are up to 50% more productive than their counterparts at low-trust companies.

Embracing remote work and worker happiness

While many organizations are reporting increased employee output since they’ve transitioned to remote work, it remains unclear whether or not employees are happier at home. Slack’s 2020 research Moving Beyond Remote: Workplace Transformation in the Wake of COVID shows that the vast majority of global respondents aren’t eager to return to the old way of doing business, yet nor are they eager to remain in today’s 100% remote environment.

72% of global knowledge workers prefer a hybrid arrangement that includes WFH and in-office options.

  • 72% of global knowledge workers prefer a hybrid arrangement that includes WFH and in-office options
  • 13% would prefer to work from home full-time
  • Only 12% want to return to full-time office environments

Trust makes a difference

How willingly workforces have embraced remote work can be traced to a number of factors. One is how readily they trust their employer, Bax said. “As far as organizational confidence is concerned, again, it appears to be a mixed bag. Major tech companies with young leadership, led by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's early embrace of permanent WFH, have definitely gotten on board,” he added. “Personally, I think it's great and my team continues to be high-performing as we work from home. But it should be noted that older managers who are not as enthusiastic about or feel threatened by digitization tend to have their doubts,” Bax said.

Personality preferences play a part

Personality and preferred work style play into the equation as well. Employees who thrive in in-person collaborative working environments are more likely to have struggled with the transition to full-time WFH, while those who are content collaborating virtually continue to excel. A June 2020 New York Times article illustrated this truism with examples from the company Eventbrite. Julia Hartz, chief executive of the company, told the Times that the customer service teams, which were accustomed to working collaboratively, missed the in-person nature of their office. On the other hand, the engineering team was prospering.

Lifestyle changes matter, too

For some workers, their embrace of the remote working model is more closely tied to the improved work-life balance they’re experiencing, or to the lifestyle changes that the transition to full-time WFH enabled — like a lack of commute. Research by Slack found that pre-pandemic, the average U.S. worker spent 54 minutes commuting to work each day. And while some note enjoying their commute as a way to prepare for the day, research shows that for many — particularly those commuting by car in traffic — the journey increases stress and anxiety. Slack’s research also found that employees said slashing their commute came with additional benefits, like money savings and the opportunity to spend more time with family.

While some note enjoying their commute as a way to prepare for the day, research shows that for many — particularly those commuting by car in traffic — the journey increases stress and anxiety.

A look at employee behavior during recruiting and hiring

Another way we’ve seen the pandemic alter employee behavior is in the hiring and recruiting process. With big job losses throughout the year, especially in industries hard hit by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic, like hospitality, retail, and events, employees across the countries hit career sites, seeking employment. While this aspect of the recruiting process was already well established, what changed was the introduction of fully remote interview, hiring, and onboarding processes. Onboarding, especially, presented challenges on both sides. HR leaders and team managers accustomed to new hires popping over to their desks with questions were forced to become more strategic and organized in their approach. Technical oversights that were annoying hiccups in traditional onboarding, like lack of access to cloud-based company portals and accounts, or hardware issues be it phone or computer, were magnified given the physical distance between managers, new hires, and IT personnel. In the newly 100% remote environment precipitated by the pandemic, new hires had to work to come up to speed on the tasks and requirements of their new job, acclimatize to company culture, and build connections with new team members — virtually.

But it’s not all bright stuff

On the other side of the increased levels of productivity and contentment among the workforce experienced by some organizations, we also saw some employee behavior changes that could reflect troubling trends

Burnout poses risk to increased outputs

With the line between work and home more blurred than ever before, maintaining distinct time and space for the two has proved difficult for many. As a result, we’ve seen the propensity for employee burnout rise dramatically. A survey by UK-based research firm Statistica found 68% of employees believe they are working more hours now, compared to pre-pandemic. Additional research by Airtasker reports that employees who work from home work 1.4 days more per week than those who work in an office. While it’s clear that working remotely increases flexibility, it also can make it more difficult to disconnect from work. Asana’s 2021 research report, The Anatomy of Work Index, uncovered a more specific finding when it comes to burnout: in 2020, 71% of workers admit to experiencing it. Burnout doesn’t only stem from the increased hours we’re clocking for our companies. The heightened levels of stress we’re all experiencing while navigating the challenges and uncertainty of the pandemic contribute, too. Much like as professionals we struggle to separate work from home when they occupy the same space, it’s near impossible to separate ourselves from the stressors outside of work which we’re experiencing in these difficult times. But companies need a strategy to help employees avoid burnout, and fast. Nationally recognized executive coach Pam Ryan said burnout poses great risk to the increased outputs many organizations are currently experiencing. “Employees are struggling to separate work from home, and they are afraid to admit they are burned out,” Ryan said. “Employers need to understand how to help their teams balance and cope to avoid a crash.”

Poorly managed tech creates additional struggles

Technology has enabled the depth, breadth, and scale of remote work we see today. But although it’s been the availability of high-speed internet access and collaboration tools that’s made today’s work-from-home environment possible, the wrong tech stack or poor technological structure have created hurdles for many teams. According to research by Gartner, 54% of HR leaders indicated that poor technology and/or infrastructure for remote working is the biggest barrier to effective remote working in their organization. Internet access has been a hurdle for some, too. Without access to company high-speed networks, employees relied on their home networks, which created bandwidth issues as other family members tried to connect as well. Telecommunications provider WhistleOut found more than 1/3 of those surveyed said weak internet kept them from completing their work at some point during the pandemic. The same study also showed that 43% of people surveyed said they had used their phone as a hotspot during the past year.

Remote work and parenting responsibilities

As if the stressors of the pandemic and a quick pivot to working from home full-time weren’t enough, many employees also experienced increased caregiving responsibilities. Working parents may have put career aspirations aside to handle parenting responsibilities, while facing an uncertain future as to when traditional childcare will again be possible. Additionally, in a household with 2 working parents, the pandemic exacerbated or uncovered gender-based inequities in relationships, as working mothers were likely to have taken over increased childcare responsibilities as schools and daycare centers closed. The research report Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19 published by the Center for Social and Economic Research found that 44% of working mothers report being the only one in the household providing childcare, compared to 14% of working fathers. Being a working mother means an increased risk for burnout, as well. Research by healthcare startup Maven show mothers are 28% more likely than fathers to experience burnout. For women, who already experience pay inequity and lack representation in executive positions, the heightened risk for burnout and the increased childcare responsibilities and of the pandemic are likely to have lasting effects, as we know foregoing a promotion or reducing working hours can affect one’s earning potential for years or decades.

Lasting effects

The pandemic will have lasting effects on our workforce, our world, our culture, and way of life. It’s changed employee behavior and organizational behavior in meaningful ways. Employees report satisfaction with the ability to work from home, but many look forward to the hybrid model that’s sure to come. Companies have seen big gains in outputs and employee “productivity,” but what remains unclear is whether the improved outcomes are the result of true productivity increase, or simply more hours worked. Some managers point to the bolstered trust between management and team members as a factor in the uptick in productivity, while others believe it in part due to the ability for deeper focus that’s pronounced at home. One thing is for sure: The majority of working individuals report working more today than they did pre-pandemic, and nearly 3/4 of workers have experienced burnout over the past year. As we continue to seek balance in our lives when we’re doing everything from home, companies must find ways to help alleviate worker stress and prevent burnout — or risk the consequence of big drops in productivity and the need for additional time off. As we enter the next phase of our workplace’s new normal, companies will have to work hard to continue to balance the needs of managing business operations while supporting the needs of employees. For all of the challenges the crisis created, the pandemic underscored the fact that we’re all humans who need flexibility, support, and understanding in our professional lives as well as our personal lives.

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