Category Archives: pandemic

the future of working from home

Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth (2021) examined the effects of the pandemic on employees of a “large Asian IT services company,” for which they have extraordinarily detailed data. As shown in the graphs, employees worked more hours and produced less during the pandemic. Staff also received less mentoring. Those who had children at home were the worst affected. The major reason appears to be an increase in the amount of time spent on coordinating activities. Productivity worsened as the months passed–there is little evidence that the firm solved its coordination problems.

Results from one organization may not generalize. A school, a house-cleaning service, or a physical production facility might see very different results. Even a different IT company (or a similar company in a different national and cultural context) might experience the pandemic differently. However, one would think that an IT services company would be especially good at managing remote work–not only because of its employees’ skills and technical capacity, but also because its products were already virtual before COVID-19.

If–like me–you are worried about the effects of remote work on life in cities, on restaurants and other small businesses, and on workers’ solidarity, then this paper offers some good news. Apparently, it is not easy to manage remote work. It is still helpful to bring workers together into one physical location. Maybe regular routines will return in 2021-22.

I wondered to what extent the findings applied to me. I’ve certainly spent more hours working during the pandemic than ever before. I don’t actually think I spent more time coordinating activities, e.g., scheduling. I manage my own calendar, travel, etc., but I feel increasingly efficient at that–thanks, in part, to a good scheduling app.

To some extent, for me, the past year simply continued a longer-term trend of increasing work-hours, which is very common. In addition, many programs, organizations, projects, employees, and students experienced crises related to the pandemic and the economy, Trump and the election, or racism, and those issues have demanded attention.

Finally, working from home removed any need to move around, whether from one room to another on campus or from one city or country to another. As a result, I could schedule meetings back-to-back all day, when previously I would have had to build in transit time. Arguably, I was more “productive” as a result–that depends on whether those meetings did any good. But I felt less able to reflect on things, to mull things over. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always done most of my mulling-over while walking. I blogged less this year than at any time since I started to blog in 2003, and that’s partly because I often felt I hadn’t had any time to think and had nothing new to say. Again, whether that change reflects a decline in my “productivity” depends on whether the content would have had any value–maybe the world was spared some extra bytes.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate through this whole period, and one great advantage is my ability to do my job basically as well as usual. I’ve watched many other people struggle to achieve their goals and maintain their vocations. I think my courses went well online, I completed a book, and I participated in many collaborative projects. I certainly did not feel isolated–in fact, as an introvert, I felt continuously challenged by the number of consecutive hours talking with other people on Zoom. But perhaps what I have missed most is time spent alone, moving through urban space.

Source: Gibbs, Mengel & Siemroth (2021), Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals,” BFI Working Paper, May 06, 2021

Survey Finds Regional, Racial Divides in K-12 Remote Schooling Impact During Pandemic

I did this analysis, which was released today …

New nationwide survey by Tufts University researchers finds that parents credit schools with limiting academic harms but see damage to social relationships.

More than 70% of K-12 students across the country experienced some remote schooling during the 2020-21 school year, with stark differences emerging along regional and racial lines and the worst effects on students’ social relationships, according to a new, nationally representative study conducted by Ipsos, using its KnowledgePanel, for the Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement.

Thirty percent of students in the South attended entirely in-person, compared to just 11.5% in the West. Sixty-one percent of students in the West attended entirely remotely, significantly more than in the other regions.

Entirely in-person17%27%30%11.5%
Entirely remote50%32%26%61%
Mix of both30%36%35%23%
Did not attend school3%4%9%5%

White students were most likely to attend in person. Parents or guardians of color were somewhat more likely than white parents to report negative academic experiences with remote learning, but that difference was within the margin of error. (Given the sample size, analysis of specific racial and ethnic groups is not possible.)

The survey was fielded online between April 23 and May 3, 2021 and had 1,449 respondents, 248 of whom provided responses about their own children’s schooling experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics based on these 248 responses have a margin of error of +/- 6.2 percentage points.

About 24% of K-12 students attended school entirely in-person, 39% entirely remotely, 32% in a hybrid mix of both modes, and nearly 6% of school-aged children did not attend school at all.

Parents reported the worst effects on their children’s social relationships, followed by physical fitness and emotional wellbeing. On academics, slightly more parents reported positive than negative effects from the measures their schools took to limit the spread of COVID-19.

All data included in the survey was reported by parents or guardians describing their own children. Parents were not asked about the overall impact of the pandemic, but specifically about the measures that their children’s schools had taken to limit the spread of the virus.

“Many parents seem to credit schools with making the best of the situation, although some see bad effects, especially on social relationships,” said Peter Levine, an associate dean at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life and co-principal investigator of this study.

Tufts University’s Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement was established in 2019 as part of a strategic effort to use resources and expertise across the university to address major global issues. It brings together researchers from across the university to discuss and investigate aspects of equity and inequity in the United States and the world. The research has been funded by Tufts University’s Office of the Vice Provost, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, the Tufts Data Intensive Science Institute and the Tufts Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. 

For more data and findings from the Research Group on Equity, please visit

The group’s principal investigators are Jennifer Allen, professor of community health in the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences; Peter Levine, associate dean for academic affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts; and Thomas Stopka, associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Other members of the group can be found here.

Despite Similar Levels of Vaccine Hesitancy, White People More Likely to Be Vaccinated Than Black People

I crunched the data for this new release, based on our very recent national survey. We find that those most hesitant to be vaccinated are younger, less educated, and more likely to trust former President Donald Trump; we also find a racial divide in access to the vaccine.

Image courtesy Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement

White people are more likely to have been vaccinated than Black people despite similar levels of vaccine hesitancy, or saying they are very unlikely to get a vaccine. Therefore, access to vaccines and other factors could be limiting vaccination efforts.

About 17 percent of the U.S. adult population currently say they are “very unlikely” to get a vaccination for COVID-19.

This nationally representative survey by Ipsos, using its KnowledgePanel, for the Tufts the Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement was fielded online between April 23 and May 3, 2021 and had 1,449 respondents.

Please read more here.

the international variation in COVID-19 mortality

The New York Times published a chart showing the number of reported COVID-19 deaths per capita and deaths above normal this year for selected countries. My graph demonstrates that the two variables correlate quite well–except in Russia. That is circumstantial evidence that Russia (and only Russia, among these countries) is failing to report COVID-19 deaths, as Anton Troianovski suggests in the reported article.

I wanted to check this correlation because I am interested in what explains the very large differences in national death rates. An explanation is not at all obvious. Consider these statistics:

countrydeaths Above NormalCOVID-19 DEAThs per 100kSocial Welfare Spending (%GDP)Health Care Spending Per Capita (PPP $US)Pop Density / Square KMUrban Pop. %Median AgeIndex of Stringency of COVID-19 regulations
Russia28%3914% $   1,488.00975%40.336.57
Spain23%10625% $   3,576.009281%43.969.44
Italy19%9228% $   3,624.0020071%46.580.56
U.K.17%12421% $   4,619.0028184%40.675.93
U.S.17%9619% $ 10,623.003682%38.558.8
Poland16%4521% $   2,015.0012160%41.975
Czech Rep.15%7819% $   3,040.0013674%43.381.48
Switzerland13%8417% $   8,113.0021174%42.760.19
Sweden12%8325% $   5,828.002388%41.169.44
France12%8331% $   5,250.0011981%41.778.8
Netherlands12%6116% $   5,634.0041092%42.875
Portugal12%5423% $   3,242.0011066%44.665.74
Austria12%5027% $   5,879.0010859%44.581.48
Hungary7%4818% $   2,115.0010472%43.679.63
Finland4%929% $   4,457.001688%42.852.31
Germany3%2726% $   6,098.0023577$47.875
SourcesNew York TimesNew York TimesOECDWHOWorld Population ReviewWorld BankCIA World Fact BookThis Oxford tracker.

The first point you may notice is a very high variation in many of these indicators. The excess death rate is 20 percentage-points worse in Spain than Germany. The UK has lost almost 14 times more people per capita to COVID-19 than Finland. France spends almost twice as much of its GDP on social welfare as the nearby Netherlands. Germany is 26 times more dense than Russia. Sweden is far more urban than Austria. Americans spend an average of five times more on healthcare than Hungarians. The only column with a small range is age expectancy.

The second point is that none of these variables correlates impressively with COVID-19 deaths. In a simple OLS regression, nothing comes anywhere near statistical significance.

It far from obvious why some countries have fared so much better or worse than the others. This is a smallish sample of countries (the only ones for which the NYT presented excess deaths) and maybe patterns would emerge in a larger sample. However, the situation seems noisy because so many variables may matter, and they can push in different directions in the same country.

For instance, Anne Applebaum recently wrote, “if the United States is very, very bad at social trust and public-health systems, it is very, very good at large-scale logistics.” I would gloss her second point this way: once the US government pays big companies a lot of money to do something, we often see impressive results. In this case, firms like Pfizer, FedEx, and CVS are administering millions of doses of vaccine per day with federal support. Yet we do a relatively bad job at changing behavior en masse because we tend to be distrustful and hyper-individualistic. The shifting performance of the US compared to other countries probably reflects these cross-pressures–and every other country has its own mix.

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.