People at Work 2021: Survey shows less optimism, more work, new jobs — but embracement of contract jobs

We are years — if not decades — away from truly understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the workplace and the attitudes and feelings of the workers in it.

One year into the pandemic, ADP Research Institute‘s study, “People at Work 2021: A Global Workforce View” gave a window into how the global workforce feels, how it has coped thus far, and delivered insight into workers’ perspectives about the future.


  • Optimism is down — especially among Generation Z (those between 18-24);
  • Unpaid overtime is up — as workers have been asked to take on more, often the work of furloughed colleagues;
  • Jobs are changing — at least one in four says they have a new role;
  • Women are getting crushed — either by being forced to take on new roles or give up the ones they have to care for family.

The most interesting stat may be this: More than half (54%) of the global workforce said it is more interested in contract work, having seen the flexibility a mobile workplace provides.

Nela Richardson, the chief economist at ADP, said the work world has forever changed.

“In the past year, business-as-usual has been suspended, forcing employers and workers to rethink accepted norms and adapt quickly to an uncertain and fast-changing world,” she said.

“COVID-19’s impact on job loss and change has been uneven, and those who held their jobs are facing unexpected choices, compromises and even opportunities. We set out to understand how the pandemic continues to shape workers’ opinions and attitudes so employers can better understand the shift in employee mindset as they navigate the path forward.”

The ADP Research Institute surveyed more than 32,000 adult workers, including the gig economy, across 17 countries, to understand employee sentiment. Though attitudes and behaviors varied depending on location and local policies, the report detailed the impact on employees over the past year across five key dimensions of working life: worker confidence and job security, workplace conditions, pay and performance, worker mobility, and gender and family.

Here is a greater look at the responses:

Worker confidence

Optimism is shaken, yet persistent: COVID-19 has dented worker sentiment — although the majority (86%) of workers still said they feel optimistic about the next five years in the workplace, this is down from 92% last year. While overall optimism may be the long-term outlook, it is uneven among workers, specifically among new entrants in the workforce.

  • Nearly four in five (78%) Generation Z workers felt their professional lives are affected, and two in five (39%) reported they lost jobs, were furloughed or suffered a temporary layoff from their employer;
  • As a result, optimism among Generation Z has fallen substantially (to 83% from 93%) — far more than any other generation;
  • Additionally, fears of job insecurity have compelled three-quarters of respondents (76%) to take on extra tasks, longer hours or assume a heavier workload.

Workplace conditions

Unpaid overtime soared; empowerment rose on flexible working: With concerns around job security looming large, nearly half (46%) of global respondents have taken on additional responsibilities at work, either to compensate for colleagues losing their roles or — particularly when it comes to essential workers (55%) — to cope with the extra workload COVID-19 has created.

  • Unpaid overtime has jumped sharply, to 9.2 hours per week on average, up from 7.3 hours just a year ago;
  • Since the pandemic began, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of workers (67%) who said they feel empowered to take advantage of flexible working arrangements at their companies, up from just over a quarter (26%) before the pandemic.

Employee performance

The pandemic put employee performance in the spotlight. Workers admitted the workplace changes have offered opportunities to develop new skills or embark on new career trajectories that they find satisfying or that unlock their potential in unforeseen ways.

  • More than one-in-four workers (28%) reported having taken on a new role or changing roles due to job losses in their organization. Once again, Generation Z workers had to be the most agile, with more than one in three (36%) having changed roles or taken on a new one;
  • And there were positives, as most employees have been rewarded financially for their commitment, with nearly seven in ten (68%) having received a pay raise or a bonus.

Worker mobility

Workers are on the move: Within a year, COVID-19 has significantly impacted workers’ locations. In fact, three-quarters (75%) of the global workforce made changes or planned to change how or where they live, with that percentage even greater (85%) among Generation Z. Worker mobility also played into considerations around whether employed roles or gig work were preferable in terms of freedom of choice about how and where to work.

  • More than half (54%) of the global workforce said they are more interested in contract work since the advent of COVID-19, the main reasons being that they believed there are new opportunities for them to perform contract work (35% say so) or because they have learned new skills that they can apply to contract work (32%);
  • In fact, older workers were the most open to the idea of shifting into contract work (29% of over 55-year-olds and 22% of 45-to-54-year-olds), followed by Generation Z (19%);
  • However, the majority of workers (83%) would still opt for a permanent, traditional job rather than contract work, a proportion that is relatively unchanged since last year.

Gender and family

Women felt the strain — and pay gaps held. One of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the way in which it has upended work/life balance.

  • Half of respondents (52%) believed employers accommodating the needs of working parents will cease within a year, something likely to weigh heavily in future decisions, as 15% of working parents report that they or a member of their household has already stopped working voluntarily, rising to 26% for those with children under 1;
  • Two-thirds (67%) of the global workforce said they have been forced to make a compromise between their work and their personal life because of the impact of the pandemic, especially for women and parents;
  • Women were also less likely than men to receive a bonus or pay raise for taking on additional work or changing roles, with the greatest gap in North America, where 62% of men received a bonus or pay raise for changes to their roles, compared with only 50% of women.