This week marks the first anniversary of Fortune’s decision to ask all U.S.- and Europe-based staffers to work from home. Looking back on the email announcement is like looking at a time capsule. There was a strong focus on cleaning and sanitization, which we now know isn’t a good use of time and resources in fighting the battle against COVID-19. Business travel was canceled. Training sessions on working from home were offered. But most notable is that initially the office shutdown was scheduled for just one week: “We will reevaluate the need to extend this temporary policy next week and will communicate updates accordingly.”
I haven’t been back in the office since.
The past year has transformed nearly every aspect of our world. Seemingly overnight, the quirky (wearing leggings during a Zoom call with clients!) became mundane. Meanwhile, our friends, family, colleagues, and communities have had their lives changed in critical ways that promise to have much longer-lasting effects. Living through a global pandemic has driven dramatic shifts in our jobs, eating habits, childcare, and even our collective sense of time.
Fifteen Fortune staffers reported on some of the most significant ways in which our lives have been altered, and one lesson rings true: Virtually no one has been left untouched after 12 months of such dramatic disruption. A generous dose of empathy and understanding of that truth will make us all stronger as we rebuild and remake our world in the year ahead.
Work from home
In a year of Zoom burnout, mask profiteering, and virtual yoga, perhaps no COVID-19 phenomenon will have a more lasting impact than WFH, or work from home. The pandemic drove companies worldwide to shut their offices, sometimes at a day’s notice. By June of last year, 42% of the U.S. labor force, largely from the ranks of white-collar employees and professionals, were working from home, many shutting their apartments and logging in from cheaper or more serene locations. Similar retreats to home offices happened around the world.
For a while it seemed like a respite from daily stresses. Traffic jams vanished in cities like Los Angeles, San Jose, and Bengaluru. Companies reported saving countless millions on utilities and operating costs, and started eyeing their high-priced offices as unnecessary, since their businesses seemed to tick along fine without them.
Now, a year on, it seems possible that office life might never be the same again. For millions, working from home has come to signify higher-end employment. Indeed, the gulf is now starkly visible on the streets between those able to perform their jobs remotely, and lower-paid transport, health, or retail workers who have no WFH option. With offices shut, large numbers of canteen and lunch-hour restaurant workers, janitors, and others have lost their jobs altogether. It is a “ticking time bomb for inequality,” says Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom.
Despite such wrenching dislocations, most remote employees say that when the pandemic finally ends, they will want the choice of where they work, with many preferring a flexible mix of office and home. That is a profound shift, with which companies will need to grapple for years. Yes, businesses will save millions on utilities and office rent. And there is also saved productivity, lost before to hours spent in needless meetings or on long commutes.
But the loss from making WFH permanent could be just as big. Those only beginning their careers have struggled to be productive while working from home. And studies show that face-to-face contact is crucial for generating new ideas. Gmail, Google News, and Street View all grew out of chitchat over free gourmet lunches at Google HQ.
Even as offices begin reopening for partial in-person work, many are finding that they need a drastic redesign, with touchless elevators and distanced pods. But in the end, that may be the easiest part, as companies adjust to the WFH age.—Vivienne Walt
A distorted sense of time
When the U.K. locked down owing to the emerging coronavirus last March, Ruth Ogden, an assistant professor of psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, was on maternity leave, at home with her infant daughter and two other young children. Confined to those quarters and conditions, each day felt like a fresh eternity to her.
Ogden’s research focuses on human perception of time, and she wondered: Is everyone feeling this way? So she did an academic study. They didn’t all feel like Ogden, but the vast majority of the 604 participants reported experiencing a distorted sense of time during the country’s lockdown.
That time has been playing tricks on us during the pandemic will surprise no one who, over the course of the past year, has forgotten what day it is, or who in describing daily life has invoked Groundhog Day. There are reasons for that.
When COVID-19 abruptly upended our lives last year, it separated us, almost completely, from the routine and events that usually root our lives in time (and help us commit it to memory)—work, school, dates, social outings, sports events, ceremonies, travel, the things we plan for and look forward to. Life tends to be a blur without those anchors, explains Ogden.
For people who have been able to work from home during the pandemic, that disorienting effect is compounded by the collapsed boundary between work and home, and the now more fluid workday: When does the day begin and end when you can never really leave the virtual pandemic office?
Technology, of course, began eroding the wall between work and home decades ago—dividing employees into boundary-loving “segmenters” and more flexible “integrators”—but experts, like Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, say the pandemic has supercharged that trend. Studies show remote workers are working more. A team with Harvard Business School, using meeting and email metadata of roughly 3.1 million employees around the world, found the pandemic workday was, on average, 48.5 minutes longer. In a sample of its employees, Microsoft found they were more often working at night, through lunch, and over the weekends.
How we’ve experienced the passage of time during the pandemic, though, is more personal, says Ogden. In her study, which she repeated with similar results during the U.K.’s second lockdown this winter, roughly 40% of respondents sensed that time was passing more slowly than usual. Another 40% felt it was moving faster. (And 20%, perhaps essential workers, experienced no change.) The difference, Ogden found, came down to a few factors. For people who were busy, who were satisfied with their social interactions, and who were not stressed, time sped along. For those who were lonely, bored, and experiencing anxiety and depression, it moved slowly.
Will a year on pandemic time, however we experienced it, have long-term implications? Experts expect the workday will remain more flexible and fluid than it was in the before-times, and that—for a while, at least—people may be a bit more appreciative and thoughtful about the time they have and how they use it.
“We’ve realized that a year is quite important,” says Simon Grondin, a psychology professor at Laval University and the author of The Perception of Time: Your Questions Answered. But as the months roll on, ironically enough, he believes that sensitivity to the preciousness of time will disappear.—Erika Fry
The way we work out
Toilet paper wasn’t the only hard-to-find item in the early days of the pandemic. For gym rats, dumbbell shortages and lengthy waits for delivery of Peloton bikes and treadmills became symbols of just how dramatically COVID-19 altered workout culture.
City- and statewide lockdowns shuttered fitness center chains and boutique spin, barre, and yoga studios. In some places, even outdoor exercise was restricted. Like nearly all other aspects of pandemic-era life, exercise too was suddenly an at-home activity, and amateur athletes scrambled to turn a basement or garage or corner of a studio apartment into a personal workout space.
The shift was bad news for brick-and-mortar gyms, with once-buzzy purveyors of in-person fitness struggling to survive. Spin studio Flywheel, for one, filed for bankruptcy in September.
Meanwhile, the pandemic was an enormous boon for makers of in-home workout equipment. Peloton’s sales doubled in its most recent fiscal year to $1.8 billion, as consumers clamored for the company’s connected gear and on-demand app. The company ended its latest quarter with 1.67 million subscribers to its equipment-connected classes and 625,000 subscribers to its app, increases of 134% and 472%, respectively, from the prior year. Hydrow, which sells a $2,200 rowing machine, says its sales jumped 500% in 2020 from the year earlier; it raised a fresh round of $25 million in funding in June to expand its direct-to-consumer distribution. And workout apparel retailer Lululemon paid $500 million to acquire Mirror, maker of wall-mounted screens that offer on-demand workouts, in a bet that the at-home fitness trend will remain hot even if COVID-19 eases.
But for every piece of high-end exercise equipment sold to meet the demands of pandemic-era exercise, there was a low-tech alternative: live yoga classes with a beloved instructor on Zoom, squats with a backpack full of books, a marathon-distance race, run alone in a 20-foot backyard.
The world is eager for the pandemic to subside and for life to return to “normal.” But the at-home fitness trend might just outlast the days of occupancy limits and social distancing. A survey by The New Consumer and Coefficient Capital, published in December, found that 76% of consumers have switched to exercising more at home during COVID-19, and 66% say they prefer it. Technology can re-create some of the camaraderie that exercise classes and crowded weight rooms used to foster—and the convenience of working out at home means there are fewer reasons to not show up.—Claire Zillman
Renewed gratitude for essential workers
In a world that came to rely on restaurant workers and delivery people to survive quarantine, a new study from the University of California at San Francisco offered a surprising insight into the lives of these anonymous workers. Turns out that line cooks, not health care workers, may face the highest risk of death in the pandemic. The study aligns with what reams of data now affirm: To perform essential, in-person work in the U.S. is to be both a hostage and in enormous jeopardy, even without a pandemic raging. The line cooks, the warehouse workers, the bus drivers, the custodial staff, the store clerks, and anyone doing the kind of work that makes other work possible are often living in crowded and inadequate housing. Tools for their well-being, like access to capital markets, education, and health care, are typically out of reach. They’re also primarily Black, brown, rural dwellers, or immigrants. Many of these jobs were on track to be replaced by automation in the coming years; now, as entire neighborhoods reel from economic loss, their post-COVID future is fraught. Many African American families, already laboring under an enormous wealth gap—the median white family in the U.S holds more than 10 times the wealth of the median Black family, according to research from McKinsey—may never recover.
What would gratitude for essential workers look like? The new practice of acknowledging in-person workers—there is an entire Pinterest category just for signs thanking delivery drivers, for example—is a terrific start. But letting them return to anonymity is a mistake society cannot afford to make. Nothing short of a system reboot is called for, of which the vital work of job retraining or “upskilling” to prepare the workforce for a digitized and automated future can be only one part. Gratitude means a sober look at the true barriers essential workers often face; conversations about wages, immigration reform, childcare, affordable credit, unemployment insurance, police and bail reform, even union protections. It’s time to make sure essential workers stay visible. After all, what would we do without them?—Ellen McGirt
A chronology of pandemic-fueled shortages
For American consumers, the past year has been marked by one shortage after another. In March, as government lockdowns spread across the country, consumers feared penury, and in their pandemic-fueled panic, stocked up on essentials, notably toilet paper. (That later led to a paucity of bidets.)
At the same time, as people were being told to disinfect all surfaces before touching them (remember being told not to touch a delivery package for 24 hours?), Clorox’s namesake wipes became the hottest item imaginable in early spring, and in early 2021, the company thinks the wipes’ availability will be normalized only by midyear.
After the initial chaos, as people realized grocery and big-box stores would not run out of essentials, they focused on how to pass the time. By May, American bike shops were running out of lower-end brands, and barbells proved impossible to find: The Sports & Fitness Industry Association says that 14% more Americans rode a road bike at least once in 2020 than in the previous year.
Once summer arrived in June, outdoor furniture became scarce. The following month, shoppers had to contend with yet another problem: Coins were hard to come by, and many stores were requiring exact change or electronic payments.
But consumers weren’t yet done with hassles. In August, many stores were out of charcoal as Americans barbecued their hearts out. Once summer ended, consumers had to deal with the effect of orders canceled in March by panicked retailers and apparel makers fearful of being saddled with merchandise they might not be able to unload months later. Stores ran low on everything from Crocs to Under Armour clothing.
By October, the home-gym craze was such that Peloton’s order backlog reached alarming levels, prompting the stationary-bike maker to buy a manufacturer to increase production. In November, restaurants and homeowners were buying up every patio heater in sight. And a month later, as the outdoor sports boom continued, skis and snowshoes went flying off the shelves. (In January, it was cross-country skis that were selling out.)
In February, the 12th month of the pandemic, a shortage of a product consumers don’t buy directly but is a key component in much of what they do had reared its head: an insufficient supply of silicon chips. The shortage has closed U.S. car factories and delayed shipments of consumer electronics among many repercussions, proving how long-lasting the impact of this pandemic could be even after the virus is curbed.—Phil Wahba
The many, many considerations working parents juggle
For decades, the challenges for working parents were straightforward: How do I find affordable childcare? How do I transport my kids to and from school? What’s a good balance between the time I spend on work versus home life?
But a year into the coronavirus pandemic, nothing about working parenthood is as clear-cut anymore. The number of considerations has ballooned to include weighing whether day care is a health risk and how to juggle working at home while children do online schooling. For parents who must still commute to work, the situation is even more complicated. The only constant these days about working parenthood—and especially working motherhood, as moms shoulder these pandemic burdens disproportionately—is that it’s harder than ever.
There has been some help. Some companies have relaxed their policies to make it easier for working parents, or now offer extra benefits, such as free backup childcare or reskilling so that employees who normally work in person can stay at home because of childcare obligations. Meanwhile, the latest COVID relief package making its way to President Biden’s desk includes $40 million for childcare providers and an expansion of the child tax credit to $3,000 per child, with slightly more for kids under six.
Whatever the case, working parents, and especially mothers forced out of the workforce, will feel the impact of the pandemic on their families and careers for months to come—and possibly for years.—Emma Hinchliffe
A change of appetite
As the virus swept the globe last spring, one of the more remarkable trends was manifest in how much of the world reacted roughly the same way when it came to food. From Colombia to Bulgaria, restaurants and hotels closed—taking high-priced specialties with them—and many people stockpiled beans and other staples. People who had previously relied on takeout and restaurants started cooking at home almost exclusively (especially when it came to baking bread) and loading up on affordable comfort foods that provide sustenance and familiarity alike, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
Some of those changes of habit were fueled by fears of food shortages and stockpiling owing to COVID-19. One year later, those fears have largely dissipated; in most places, logistical delays to transporting food proved to be short-lived. But the way we eat has changed regardless—and likely for the long term.
The first change is the deepening of food insecurity worldwide, as the economic effects of the pandemic have widened already existing divides between those who can and can’t access, and afford, nutritious food. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the economic impact of the pandemic added between 83 million and 132 million people to the world’s undernourished in 2020 alone.
Meanwhile, for those who can afford to make the move, processed comfort foods are out—and healthy eating is in. From Thailand to Russia to El Salvador, recent USDA reports point to a surge in demand for healthy, whole foods—especially ones seen as immune-system boosting—driven by the sudden shift into home cooking and the hope that good food will ward off disease. In wealthier countries, this includes sharp increases in demand for organic food. But in many households it’s driven by the economic strains of the pandemic: Budget-friendly meal planning means fewer impulse-bought treats.
And finally, there’s one trend that food giants may find is here to stay: Online grocery shopping—and delivery—is surging as never before, finding avid customers from Jordan to Greece to, yes, the U.S. We may never eat—or shop—the same way again.—Katherine Dunn
Shining a light on inequality
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on human life and the economy over the past year. But that impact has been uneven and inequitable, as the disease ravaged some communities more than others, sparing or even boosting the fortunes of some demographic groups while others withered. Women, minorities, and the poor have suffered disproportionately, as the pandemic exposed and exacerbated pre-existing gaps in health, economic security, and well-being, bringing America’s structurally embedded inequality into sharp relief.
This uneven impact can be seen most starkly in divergent death rates in different communities. While 1.2 out of every 1,000 white people in the United States have perished from the disease, the death toll reached 1.5 out of every 1,000 Hispanics, and 1.7 per 1,000 Black people and Native Americans. Those disparities reflect the nation’s wide gulf in access to health care, as well as the fact that people of color are more likely to have frontline jobs and less likely to be able to take sick leave.
There has also been a racial and gender disparity in jobs lost, as more women and people of color worked in the service industries that were hit harder by the pandemic. Service jobs are often the best or only option for workers who haven’t had access to higher education, or whose child- or eldercare duties preclude a more routine nine-to-five schedule. And the pandemic exposed just how insecure those jobs are compared with white-collar, salaried positions.
About 60% of the jobs eliminated after COVID-19 struck were held by women. More women also had to stay home and forgo working in order to care for kids whose schools have been closed, costing the economy an estimated $341 billion.
The unemployment rate for Black workers more than doubled from January to June of last year, rising to 15% versus a peak of just 9% for white workers. By the end of 2020, the unemployment rate for Black people remained at 10%, compared with less than 6% for white people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In part, that’s because just 20% of Black workers can work from home, versus 30% of white workers and 37% of Asian workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
That has led to many follow-on economic effects. One out of five Black households reported not having enough food in February, compared with 18% of Latino households, and 8% of white households. In another survey of those behind on rent payments as of February, 29% of Black renters, 22% of Latino renters, and 13% of white renters said they were not current.
School closures owing to the pandemic have also delivered a harder blow among people of color, though all students have been harmed by reduced hours and the lack of in-person learning. Based on assessments done in 25 states last year, students learned only 67% of the math and 87% of the reading they would have in a normal year, according to an analysis by McKinsey. But at schools with a majority of students of color, scores were 59% of a normal year for math and 77% for reading. Those data points, like so many others, underscore how COVID-19 exposed our society’s underinvestment in its less privileged members.—Aaron Pressman
The shift to remote learning has been a disaster for traditional schooling, the most vulnerable students, and the careers and mental health of parents. But there’s also evidence that staying home has benefited many children, raising questions about how we educate and care for them during normal times.
It’s no revolutionary concept. This is, after all, the nature of grief—that sense of loss for the things we love. But that simple piece of dialogue from the Disney show WandaVision really gets to what we’ve been feeling in our bones over the course of this pandemic.
Americans have been isolated, stressed out, and generally thrown for a loop in the past year: “9/11 was traumatic, but it was over after a while. This is just ongoing, and it’s turned our lives upside down,” says Dr. Katherine Shear, the founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Complicated Grief. And that’s had wide-ranging implications for the country’s reckoning with a mental health crisis and what industries can do to address it.
The biggest change over the past year comes in the growth of the telehealth industry focused on mental health. By the end of 2020, some nine months after the pandemic began in earnest, usage of virtual and text-based mental health services soared.
Startups such as Ginger saw astronomical growth in utilization rates relative to the pre-COVID era—ranging from 150% to 300% depending on the type of virtual psychiatric care visit. A study conducted by think tank Rand Corporation found 54% of those seeking access to virtual medical care, a necessity when going to a hospital in person may not be safe, were looking for psychiatric services rather than physical health treatment.
Those are just some small examples. Other businesses, such as IBM’s software arm Red Hat, have rushed to appoint chief people officers and deploy measures to address their employees’ anxiety and depression in this era.
Mental health has typically been put on the back burner of American maladies despite its omnipresence. The pandemic laid it bare, offering an opportunity for innovative companies to take a stand. And while that business, and the demand for it, may be growing under the specter of the pandemic, underserved communities and those without the savvy or privilege of a fast Internet connection are still being left behind. For a virtual space for mental health care to be truly sustainable, it must rely not just on the tearing down of stigma but of structural roadblocks that prevent people from getting the care they need in the first place.—Sy Mukherjee
A diminished college experience
Ask any college graduate to identify the most valuable parts of their college experience, and the answer is almost never about course content. It’s usually about relationships—with classmates who become lifelong friends, professors, teammates, coaches, advisers—and about experiences that happen only in person, some of which one neglects to mention to parents. The answer is mostly about stuff that has been eliminated or throttled way back in the pandemic. North Carolina Central University senior Precious Davis spoke for millions when she told the school’s Campus Echo Online: “It just isn’t the same.”
Many schools are trying hard to offer in-person classes this spring, but the result is far from the traditional college experience. Restrictions are severe. The University of Virginia, for example, has barred students from leaving their rooms except to attend class, get food, exercise alone, or get tested for COVID-19. Some colleges’ dining halls are open only for takeout. Several schools—the University of New Hampshire, the University of Michigan, Clarkson University, many others—have gone online-only for days or weeks this semester as cases have surged. A Penn State junior told Time, “You simply feel like you’re watching videos and you’re not part of the class.”
Sports seasons have been shortened or canceled. The Big 10 football championship game in December—Ohio State vs. Northwestern—was a surreal and pathetic scene: The only attendees were family members of the players and staff in a stadium that seats 70,000.
For the FOMO generation, this is about the worst thing that could happen. Their fear of missing out is justified; they really are missing out on the best parts of college. Many of them, and their parents, are angry. They’ve filed 257 class-action lawsuits against schools, says the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which defends universities in some of these suits. While the schools had to do what they did, the students insist they deserve a partial refund. In some cases, the schools have an effective defense in the niceties of contract law, but the truth is, the students are right. They aren’t getting what they paid for, and there isn’t any silver lining. It’s just lousy.—Geoff Colvin
TikTok’s big moment
TikTok was both a hero and a beneficiary of the pandemic, providing hundreds of millions of people worldwide with much-needed connection and entertainment during lockdowns, while gaining immensely in users and revenue. In 2020 alone, the app raked in an estimated 181 million users, making it the most-downloaded app of the year, hitting its peak during Q1, when the pandemic’s first lockdowns spread across the globe. The most popular videos on TikTok last year ranged in topic from a parody of your worst work-from-home colleague, to the type of positive, calming vibes sorely missing during the pandemic, to the endlessly catchy yet utterly inexplicable.
Aside from a brief bump in the road, when Gen Z—and just about every other generation with them—had to confront the terrifying possibility that then-President Trump might ban their beloved TikTok, the app had a stellar year. While nearly every app experienced an uptick in time spent per user, TikTok saw 325% year-over-year growth in the U.S. to surpass even Facebook, according to App Annie. The average American TikTok user spent 21.5 hours per month on the platform last year, compared with the average Facebooker’s 17.7 hours monthly.
As COVID vaccines are rolled out and herd immunity (hopefully) ensues, people may emerge from their quarantine caves and spend less time on social media, but TikTok is still expected to grow in 2021. In 2020, TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the world, and ranked second-highest, behind Tinder, for consumer spending worldwide. Hootsuite’s Social Trends 2021 Report showed that only 14% of marketers plan to up their ad spending on TikTok this year, though, showing that even as the app’s cultural cachet continues to grow, monetizing the platform remains a challenge.—McKenna Moore
The COVID class markers
When last spring’s first lockdowns began, many became quarantined in their homes—save for those the federal government labeled “essential workers.” Health care workers, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, mass transit workers, and others could not move their lives fully indoors and became disproportionately vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. Communities became split between those working from home and those working outside the home, and that split ran glaringly along the lines of class (as well as race and gender), illuminating that divide.
Class markers have become starkly visible during the pandemic. There is the remote-work class and the in-person–work class; even among remote workers, there are those who have reliable Internet access and a stable home environment and those who don’t. Zoom and other video calls have exposed the insides of Americans’ homes, whether they live in enormous condos or cramped apartments, to the judgment of their peers. Early in the pandemic, when COVID-19 tests were especially scarce, there was the tested class, among whom the wealthy and famous could access tests, and the untested class, who couldn’t. Last April, there were those able to pay rent and the third of Americans who weren’t; then the employed and the historic number of unemployed, most of whom are women.
On a global scale, the wealth disparities are even greater: Wealthy nations have been snapping up shipments of vaccines, leaving developing nations at risk of lagging behind in terms of vaccination. Some experts say the last in line may not get the vaccine until 2024.—Karen Yuan