A new University of Washington-led survey reveals changes to remote workers’ commuting and other habits during the COVID-19 pandemic.Casey Horner
No commute, fewer interruptions from co-workers, and the ability to work longer hours — all were factors that boosted feelings of productivity among people who worked from home during the first several months of the pandemic.
At the same time, according to new data from the University of Washington, those who felt less productive while working remotely pointed to the inefficiencies of communicating with colleagues, the needs of family, and demands around the house.
The COVID-19 Mobility Survey, administered in partnership with the Puget Sound Regional Council, queried residents twice in 2020 — in spring and fall — to learn not only about work and transportation habits, but also lifestyle changes during the pandemic. In all, more than 4,500 people — mostly from King County and three surrounding counties —- responded to the online survey, which focused on different aspects of daily life at a time when business and movement restrictions were in place.
Survey results were published April 30 on the Puget Sound Regional Council’s website. The research team published results from its spring 2020 data collection in the journal Transport Findings last winter.
“This was a natural experiment,” said Anne Vernez Moudon, professor emeritus of urban design and planning at the UW and a co-author on the survey. “Our transportation system works fairly well, except during commute times, in cities around the world. So what happens when all these commuters are forced to be at home, which we can’t do in normal times?”
Generally speaking, the shift to a remote work environment affected hours spent on work, recreation and screens of all kinds. But the survey asked, about other lifestyle changes, too, such as eating out and grocery shopping, and whether respondents had moved or were planning to move, because those who could work from home theoretically could work from anywhere.
Among the survey’s findings:
- A lower percentage of people in fall 2020 (29%) than spring 2020 (39%) said they felt less productive. But of those reporting being more productive (about one-quarter of the respondents in fall and spring), a higher percentage said they were working more hours in the fall (43%) than in the spring (35%).
- An overwhelming majority (87% in the fall and 81% in the spring) said they had ordered takeout. In the fall, 59% of the respondents said they ordered takeout more often than before the pandemic, versus 48% in the spring).
- By fall 2020, 58% of respondents said they were less physically active than before the pandemic, a drop from 50% in the spring.
- Social media and screen time were up even higher by the fall compared to the spring, though researchers note that the presidential election may have influenced consumption.
- Almost 80% of respondents said they hadn’t moved to a new residence during the pandemic, and of the 11% who did move, most said they wanted more space, or easier access to the outdoors.
The answers varied somewhat depending on the time of year. Even the number of participants varied dramatically from one iteration of the survey to the next: More than three times as many people responded to the first survey in the spring as did in the fall. Researchers attributed much of the differences, both in numbers and answers, to the passage of time. People adapted to the pandemic and the changes it brought about. The abrupt disruption to normal life in March likely contributed to feelings of lower productivity, for example, compared to the second survey in the fall, when routines were more established, Moudon said.
The aim of the study – capturing behavior changes due to remote-work arrangements – meant the study sample reflected a particular occupational demographic: people whose jobs allowed them to work from home. In both surveys more than 60%% of respondents were women; more than 80% of respondents had four years or more of college, and about half had a household income of more than $90,000 a year.
In the next wave of the study, researchers will turn to essential workers, and conduct focus groups about their experiences as they continued to travel to or from work during the pandemic. Researchers want to better understand why some essential workers switched from riding transit to driving during the pandemic, and what could bring them back to using transit.
Researchers believe employers can learn from this data how to think about productivity and flexibility, especially as they plan for workers to return to in-person work.
“Good work productivity is related to other things in people’s lives,” Moudon said. “Life is not just work.”
The research was funded in part by the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium. Co-authors on the project were Qing Shen of the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning, and Jeff Ban of the UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, along with UW doctoral student Xiao Shi, and Brian Lee and Mary Richards of the Puget Sound Regional Council.
For more information, contact Moudon at [email protected]