A woman makes her way to the Covid-19 testing site at the California State University Los Angeles campus on February 3. | Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Testing can do things for us now that it couldn’t do before.

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There was a time when we thought Covid-19 testing would save us from the pandemic. As long as we had enough tests and got them in the hands of enough people, we’d be able to identify and contain outbreaks, and life would soon go back to normal.

Clearly, this did not happen.

But now that we have vaccines, death and infection rates are declining, some states are dropping their restrictions, more kids are going back to school, grandparents are giving hugs, and it looks like we’re in for a much safer and better summer than 2020.

So it would be understandable if you thought there wasn’t a place for testing anymore. And you would be wrong.

Testing might be more important now than ever, and new testing technology and government funding and initiatives are making getting tested faster, easier, and cheaper than it’s ever been. At the same time, many people still don’t know how testing works, what’s out there, or why — and how — they should use testing. Or that it’s important to keep using tests, even after getting vaccinated.

What kind of tests can I get now?

There are basically two flavors of Covid-19-detecting tests: molecular, also known as genetic-based tests, which look for the virus’s RNA; and antigen tests, which look for proteins on the surface of the virus.

The standard genetic RT-PCR tests require several hours to run (usually returning results within a few days) and are considered the most accurate of Covid-19 tests. To get one of these, you can go to a point-of-care site to have a sample collected from your nose (or mouth) and sent to a lab, or you can have a test kit delivered to your home, where you collect your own sample and send it back to a lab yourself. And then you wait for the results. In the earliest days of the pandemic, RT-PCR tests were all that were available, so they might be the ones you’re the most familiar with. There are also rapid genetic tests, which are faster than the PCR test but not as accurate.

Antigen tests can give results within minutes and are cheaper than genetic tests. But they’re not as sensitive as genetic tests and may miss cases where people have low levels of the virus in their system. Many experts see them as accurate detectors of infectious cases, however, and a useful tool for mass screening programs.

The FDA has started to authorize rapid tests that can be run at home, which many experts see as a major advancement for easy, fast, and accessible Covid-19 testing that could make great strides in heading off outbreaks. Two of those tests, an antigen test from Ellume and a genetic-based test from Cue, are available over the counter — meaning you don’t need to get a prescription from your doctor, thereby removing another barrier to access. More on those tests later.

A person in a lab coat and latex gloves leans out of a van to take a nasal swab of a person standing beside the van. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
LabQ Diagnostics has mobile Covid-19 testing sites offering free tests all around New York City. LabQ claims that their accuracy is 99.7 percent and their turnaround is up to 48 hours.

We have vaccines now, so do we still even need testing?

Yes.

From a public health perspective, testing can identify possible outbreaks and virus hot spots, and can detect and track emerging new variants, all of which could help us finally stay ahead of the virus rather than simply reacting to it, as we have for the past year.

“This virus is still circulating; we still need to diagnose infection, or to identify the people who need to stay home and not transmit their effects to others,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a doctor of public health and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Recode. “We need to diagnose infections so that we can understand if there are changes in the epidemiology. Are we seeing the case burden shifting to younger ages or different populations than we’ve seen before? That could give us information about if we need new control strategies. Are we seeing increased transmissibility or increased severity? The answer to all of those questions starts with the diagnosis of an infection.”

And there’s a significant percentage of the American population that will refuse to be vaccinated, as well as people who can’t get the shot due to age, lack of access, and health issues. And it will be years before vaccines are widely available to the rest of the world — if ever. Even after getting vaccinated, people should still get a Covid-19 test if they develop symptoms.

Testing didn’t stop surges before, so why will things be any better now?

The Trump administration’s missteps in handling the pandemic are pretty well-known at this point. America was months behind the virus by the time we were able to get the resources and capacity to do the necessary millions of tests a week. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since, and often with tests that have a multiple-day wait for results — not ideal for a virus that can be infectious for days before the onset of symptoms, or spread by people who never show any symptoms at all. That makes the ability to do fast, routine screenings strategically targeted to higher-risk areas and people an important part of containing the disease.

“A year ago, we were basically reliant on slow, costly, lab-based tests for everything,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick, managing director for pandemic response, preparedness, and prevention health initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. “That was fine for diagnostic testing, but we were doing less than a million tests a week.” It’s not an ideal setup for catching a lot of infectious people quickly.

Now? “It’s been a dramatic shift,” Quick explained. “And that shift has been to the point-of-care, mostly antigen tests. And we’re seeing the at-home tests coming on.” That’s cause for hope that there will be more robust, large-scale screening programs across the country that will catch the virus before it spreads much further.

Many experts are also optimistic that the new administration’s prioritization of testing will smooth the road for this larger and more proactive role in stopping and monitoring the spread of the virus.

“We have, at each step, let the pandemic get ahead of us,” Quick said. “So at this point, it’s really critical that we stay ahead of it. That’s the key role that these tests play.”

The FDA recently made it easier and faster for rapid tests designed to screen individuals multiple times over several days to receive emergency use authorization. Many experts feel these sorts of frequent, rapid tests are necessary to, for instance, safely reopen schools (or at least provide enough reassurance to parents and teachers), workplaces, and large events. The Biden administration also recently issued guidance that insurers should cover the cost of tests even for screening purposes, so people don’t have to have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus in order to have their test costs covered.

That said, experts warn that testing by itself still isn’t a magic bullet.

“Sometimes people wave technologies like they’re this shiny object that’s going to solve all of our problems,” Nuzzo said. “And it’s never usually the case that a single technology solves all of our problems. It may solve a few, but it could also create some if we’re not smart about it.”

But I got vaccinated, so I’m free! I never have to get tested again, right?

Wrong. We already know that no vaccine has 100 percent guaranteed immunity, especially with new variants that vaccines might not have as much protection against. So if you feel sick — even if you’ve been vaccinated — get tested.

And we’re still finding out if vaccinated people can transmit the virus to others, even if they don’t get sick themselves. That’s why the CDC still recommends that vaccinated people exercise caution in public spaces (masks, social distancing) and when interacting with many people who are not vaccinated.

We also don’t know how long the immunity that vaccines provide lasts. In fact, many experts expect Covid-19 vaccine boosters will be necessary (vaccine makers are already preparing for this). Continuous testing and monitoring of emerging variants will help us determine what those boosters should protect against.

“Vaccine manufacturers need to know what variants are there, because I believe that it’s going to be critical,” said Mara Aspinall, professor and co-founder of the Biomedical Diagnostics program at Arizona State University. “We are likely to need an annual booster vaccine, similar to flu.”

So, while being vaccinated certainly has its advantages and should provide for a welcome sense of relief and relative safety, your days of Covid-19 tests are not over.

I don’t want to wait days to get test results, but I heard antigen tests aren’t accurate. Which test should I get?

How much time do you have? If you’ve got a few days to quarantine as you wait for results and want the so-called “gold standard” for accurate results, then go with the RT-PCR. If quarantining for days is not feasible (for example, it means you can’t work at a job that doesn’t offer paid sick leave), well, that’s time you may not have.

Proponents of rapid antigen tests believe that while the tests aren’t as sensitive to lower levels of the virus as RT-PCR tests and will miss more people who have some virus in their system, they are pretty good at detecting people when they have the highest levels of virus and are the most infectious (which typically starts even before symptoms). And these tests can let people know essentially immediately so they reduce the number of others they might infect.

There are some important nuances and big unknowns, however. For example, we don’t yet know what specific level of virus makes a person contagious or not.

“We need to think about antigen tests differently,” Aspinall said. “They were designed to be fast and frequent.”

Getting two rapid tests a day apart should increase your confidence that the result is accurate, and experts recommend continuing to wear a mask and social distance even if you test negative. If you have symptoms but test negative, the CDC recommends confirming the results with an RT-PCR test.

Why can’t I just grab a Covid-19 test from the drugstore, do it at home, and get results quickly? Where is my pregnancy test, but for Covid-19?

Good news! You may soon be able to do just that. The FDA has now authorized two different over-the-counter at-home rapid tests. No prescription needed, no doctor visit necessary. And there are likely more authorizations of other such tests coming.

Bad news: You won’t find them on shelves just yet, and it could be a while before they’re widely available.

“The real game changer is fully at-home self-tests, or do-it-yourself tests,” Aspinall said. “That’s when the power shifts to the individual. … Now we need to have enough capacity at the right price, which does not exist yet.”

The first over-the-counter rapid test to be authorized by the FDA comes from an Australian company called Ellume. Its CEO and founder, Dr. Sean Parsons, told Recode that the company hopes to produce up to 15 million tests a month once its American factory is up and running in the second half of 2021. But Ellume’s test costs about $30, partly because it requires the use of a mobile app to guide users through administering and running the test to reduce errors and maximize accuracy, as well as report results back to public health authorities. Parsons said a cheaper version of the test without an app could be produced, but the increased risk of user error and inaccurate results was too great to do it.

 Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
A Wellness 4 Humanity Covid-19 at-home test kit vending machine seen in New York City. The kits will soon be available in major cities across the country.

Parsons hopes that once Ellume scales up test production — a $231.8 million payment from the Biden administration for 8.5 million tests will allow the company to build its American plant and automate some of its production — it’ll be able to cut the price a bit. Parsons says we should start seeing some tests available for retail purchase next month (he wouldn’t say how many or where), but the test won’t be widely available until the second half of the year.

The other FDA-authorized over-the-counter test, from Cue Health, also uses a mobile app. Cue’s test was initially authorized as a point-of-care test, and the Trump administration gave a $481 million contract to the company to produce 6 million tests, which the company says will be used in schools, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes. The company hasn’t shared details yet about pricing and availability for retail sales.

While testing is still important, we’ve also seen how ineffective it can be if programs aren’t deployed and managed properly. It’s not just about which tests we have or how many there are — it’s about incorporating them all where and when they’re most needed.

“I’m so adamant that what we need is a strategy above all,” Nuzzo, from Johns Hopkins, said. “You figure out which technology will give you information to be able to take that action. Sometimes it’s going to be a lab test; sometimes it’s going to be a rapid test. But we need to figure it out. We’ve never really done that.”

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on two laptop screens at a congressional hearing.
Technology company executives at Thursday’s hearing had different reactions to Welch’s proposal. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

During a hearing with tech CEOs, Rep. Peter Welch asked if they’d be open to a new federal agency focused on social media platforms.

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How can Congress best regulate the monstrosity that is Facebook? At a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on social media, extremism, and misinformation on Thursday, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) offered a creative suggestion: a new government agency, somewhat similar to the Federal Trade Commission, that would broadly provide oversight of social media companies.

Much like the FTC or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Welch argued that such an agency would be staffed by policy and technology experts, and could focus on a wide range of issues, from content standards and data privacy to misinformation and disinformation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were at the hearing, and Rep. Welch asked them directly if they’d support such an agency, which he described as “the creation by Congress of a public agency … that has rule-making and enforcement authority to be an ongoing representative of the public to address these emerging issues.”

Zuckerberg told the House committee that Welch’s proposal could be “very effective and positive,” noting that such an agency could help with “complex trade-offs” between values of privacy, competition, safety, and free expression. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said he would have an “open mind” to the idea, depending on the details of how such an entity would work in practice. Meanwhile, Google’s Pichai said he would “defer to Congress” on the question, but agreed “expertise” was needed.

“Social media companies are constantly innovating and changing, and Congress can’t keep up, but a dedicated government entity that can adapt and monitor quickly and effectively can,” Welch suggested in a letter sent to other members of Congress in advance of Thursday’s hearing. The letter, which was viewed by Recode, suggests that this entity would have the flexibility to address a wide range of issues raised by social media platforms, including privacy and data security, content moderation, and liability protections.

Welch’s suggestion stood out at the hearing, which lasted over five hours and largely reviewed ongoing Republican and Democrat concerns about social media platforms, including misinformation, online discrimination, childrens’ welfare on social media, and content moderation.

This also isn’t the first time someone has a proposed a new government agency to regulate social media or technology companies. Paul Barrett, an NYU professor and the deputy director for the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, has called for adding a “digital bureau” to the FTC or for creating a new “Digital Regulatory Agency” that would make sure platforms are meeting certain standards. A bill proposed last year by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and John Thune (R-SD), the “Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act,” similarly calls for the FTC to play a more assertive role in overseeing social media companies. Others have suggested the idea that Congress pass legislation creating accountability and transparency guidelines for social media companies, and leaving it up to another agency to make sure companies are meeting those guidelines.

It’s unclear how likely it is that Congress would create a new federal agency to regulate social media or expand the purview of an existing federal authority to that end. But Thursday’s hearing suggests that the enthusiasm to crack down on these platforms remains strong.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

A man looking down on his phone walks past an advertisement for the Facebook dating service on a sidewall in Philadelphia.
Finding love looked different online. | Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

New data from the app shows how strange the last year has been.

Like everything else that used to happen in person, romance increasingly happened online during the pandemic. And like everything else that had to happen online during the pandemic, it was not quite the same.

A new report from Tinder shows just how reliant people have become on online dating since the start of the pandemic — and how different it was from dating outside a global health crisis. The report used data from Tinder profiles and aggregated app activity between January 2020 and February 2021, as well as surveys of about 5,000 Tinder users. It also discussed how the launch of video chat on the app and its ensuing popularity might change how dating works forever.

The biggest takeaway was that all the activities related to online dating ratcheted up during the pandemic. Conversations on average were 32 percent longer than they had been pre-pandemic and people matched — meaning both people found the other attractive — 42 percent more. There were about 20 percent more messages per day in February of this year than there had been in February of last year. The number of swipes on Tinder broke 3 billion in a single day for the first time in March of 2020, and then proceeded to surpass that benchmark 130 more times since. And the increased use of dating apps was not isolated to Tinder. Competitors like Bumble and Hinge also saw huge growth during the pandemic.

To keep their profiles fresh for all this action, people updated their bios about 50 percent more than they did before the pandemic, with timely topics like the election, with updates about what they were streaming, and with new pictures of them wearing masks. Typically, people fill out their profile and bio and leave it, according to Jenny McCabe, Tinder’s chief communications officer, so frequent profile updates that were seen since the pandemic began represent a “very big change in consumer behavior.”

Meanwhile, Tinder bios over time read like a time capsule of quarantine. In the early days of March, people bragged about stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Mask-wearing became a prominent bio feature in April, when the CDC finally recommended that Americans wear masks, after waffling on the issue. The words “Zoom” and “socially distant” were equally prominent on Tinder as they were everywhere else online.

Our choices of pandemic entertainment also headlined our bios last spring, with Animal Crossing and Tiger King as some of the top contenders, according to Tinder’s 2020 year in review data. Many bios at the time conjectured whether or not Carole Baskin killed her husband. Starting in August, “WAP” topped music mentioned on the platform, a distinction it held for the rest of the year. Throughout last year, people on Tinder asked their matches to send their favorite TikTok videos, reflecting that app’s overall growth in popularity during the pandemic.

More serious concerns about politics and society cropped up in people’s bios in the past year as well. In June, mentions of Black Lives Matter exploded, as much of the country took to the streets to protest police violence against Black Americans. Bio mentions of BLM grew more than 5,000 percent last year, surpassing the perennially popular term “hook-up” by the end of the year.

But perhaps the biggest change on Tinder in the past year was the innovation that came with its introduction of video. In July, Tinder introduced video chat in the app to some users and rolled it out broadly in October. About half of people on Tinder had a video chat during the pandemic, according to the Tinder survey, and more than a third said they plan to continue to use the feature when the pandemic is over. Presumably, people are also using plenty of video software outside Tinder to communicate as well.

According to McCabe, video chat has the capacity to permanently change how first dates work. People are using video to scope out their prospects and see if they are who — and are as tall as — they say they are. That’s led to first dates becoming more activity-oriented, so people can skip the small talk and move more quickly to getting to know each other. The report noted that mentions of roller skating in bios tripled during the pandemic.

And with more of the population getting vaccinated, it seems as though in-person dates are on the rise. Already in October, the share of Tinder users under 30 who hadn’t met a match in person had declined to 41 percent, down from 67 percent in May. There’s no more recent survey but several data points suggest more people are meeting up more. There’s been a large increase in Tinder users mentioning vaccines or antibodies in their bio (of course this wasn’t something people had to talk about pre-pandemic). Tinder wouldn’t disclose what share of users posted about vaccines in their bio. Mentions of “go on a date” hit an all-time high in bios in February of this year, suggesting that the future of dating is not all video.

And while video dates are certainly awkward, they may be no more awkward than video interviews or video doctor’s appointments or any of the other things we’ve had to do on screen during the pandemic. And in some ways, they represent a better, more streamlined version of dating in real life. As such, they’re likely to stick around long after the pandemic is over.

A screenshot of Mark Zuckerberg talking into a microphone via videochat.
Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely at a Congressional hearing in November 2020; he is scheduled to appear at another remote hearing on March 25, 2021. | Hannah McKay/Getty Images

But not too much help: Mark Zuckerberg has a proposal.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a message for Washington: We’re happy to change the way we run Facebook. Just tell us how.

That’s the main takeaway from a statement he will provide to Congress on Thursday, in a hearing about social media’s role in spreading misinformation. But it’s also the mantra Zuckerberg and Facebook have been repeating for years, in targeted messaging like Washington Post op-eds and paid ads aimed at the Beltway crowd.

And it’s also, more or less, the Facebook default position when it comes to making all kinds of decisions about running the enormous and enormously profitable company: “Yes, we run a company that generated $84 billion in revenue last year and is currently worth more than $800 billion. But we’d like someone else to take responsibility for …” and here you can fill in the blank, because it can range from anything from whether a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo can run on the site to whether Donald Trump can post on Facebook.

Now Facebook is in a position where everyone in Washington wants to do … something about Facebook, though exactly what depends on what part of the political spectrum they sit on. Republicans want Facebook to promise to stop censoring Republicans, though there isn’t any evidence that’s actually happening; Democrats want Facebook to promise not to destabilize democracy.

So now Zuckerberg is adding a twist to his standard request for regulation: He is telling Congress it should force Facebook — and everyone else who runs an internet platform — “to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.”

Facebook wouldn’t have to necessarily find all of that stuff and take down every last piece of it — Facebook is really big! But it would have to prove that it has spent a lot of time and money to try to do that.

In return, Zuckerberg says, Facebook and everyone else who complies would get to keep the protections offered by Section 230, a foundational piece of legislation that lets online platforms host content uploaded by users without taking responsibility for that content.

On the one hand, this seems like a fairly straightforward proposition. After all, Facebook and other big platforms like YouTube and Twitter already have systems that allow them to police copyright violations on their property. Why shouldn’t they have systems that do the same for “unlawful content”?

(Here it’s worth noting that in the early days of the platforms, their primary legal concern was avoiding the copyright claims that brought down Napster; the notion that the platforms might host content that could incite genocide or destabilize democracy wouldn’t get much traction until a decade later.)

On the other hand, this isn’t straightforward at all. It’s more or less clear when something violates copyright. But it won’t be at all clear what kind of content is “unlawful” — and waiting on Congress, which can’t find any kind of bipartisan agreement on anything at all, to decide exactly what Facebook should allow on its properties means Facebook will be waiting a very long time to hear what those guidelines are.

Which, you might argue, is fine with Facebook, if you believe that Facebook merely wants to appear as though it wants to work with Congress and hope all of the momentum to regulate tech goes away someday.

A different but equally realpolitik take: Facebook figures there’s going to be some kind of Section 230 reform, and by laying out a path it finds acceptable, it will have better odds of getting that result when it comes to negotiating with lawmakers and their staff. (Of note: Neither Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai nor Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who are also virtually testifying at Thursday’s hearing, asked Congress to modify Section 230 at all.)

Critics will also point out that creating these kinds of rules and systems isn’t nearly as big a problem for Facebook as it will be for smaller internet platform companies. (Remember that Washington levied a $5 billion fine and a new set of privacy guidelines on Facebook two years ago, and Facebook moved on without missing a beat because $5 billion isn’t a lot of money to Facebook.) But since this isn’t a new criticism, the company has a ready retort: Someone — not Facebook, certainly — should figure out the “definitions of an adequate system,” which “could be proportionate to platform size.”

Let’s be clear: Facebook doesn’t really want the government telling it what to do. It was happy(ish) to cut deals to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for use of its content in America. In Australia, Facebook threw a fit when it was compelled to do the same thing by regulators there.

But what Facebook does want are legal guardrails and a promise that if it adheres to them, it can go about its very profitable business. Asking Congress to set those up — even if, or especially if, it takes a very long time — is a very small price to pay.

An Amazon warehouse.
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

The new controversy centers on Amazon deleting the profiles of hundreds of thousands of entry-level warehouse employees.

Last week, Amazon made changes to its internal online staff directory, deleting hundreds of thousands of entry-level warehouse workers’ profiles from a tool that allows any company employee to view the full names and photos of other employees.

What might seem like a run-of-the-mill company decision has sparked speculation among Amazon’s corporate employees on internal listservs and warehouse workers on platforms like Reddit that Amazon made the change to discourage potential union organizing at its warehouses. Thousands of Amazon warehouse employees in Alabama are currently voting on whether to form a union in the first large US union election in the company’s history. An Amazon spokesperson said the impetus for the move was to focus on improving a different app that warehouse employees use more often, and she declined to comment on the union speculation.

The employee directory in question is known as the Amazon Phone Tool, which allows employees of all levels to do things like search for other employees anywhere in the company, see where they work, and view the hierarchy of managers all the way up to Jeff Bezos. The tool also allows employees to create or accumulate virtual awards and icons for everything from making it through the peak holiday shopping season to acing a quiz about the company’s leadership principles. Previously, all entry-level warehouse workers — known as Tier 1 associates in Amazon parlance — had profiles in this directory and would turn up in search results. But as of last week, Amazon removed them.

Amazon spokesperson Brittany Parmley dismissed the notion that the change is part of some larger scheme, and said the move is tied to beefing up the smartphone app that entry-level employees already use on a daily basis. The app shows workers the name of their manager, and manager’s manager, but does not give them other information about employees at their warehouse or elsewhere in the company. The spokesperson said the company is in the process of adding some of the virtual perks to this app, like the icons and awards that come with a Phone Tool profile.

“We’re simply setting up the right tools for the right jobs,” she said in a statement. “Our front-line employees now have the A to Z app to support their specific needs, and it’s optimized for a mobile-first experience with information about pay, schedules, team structures, company information, and more.”

Amazon front-line workers can access the A to Z app from their own devices. On the other hand, for Phone Tool, workers need to be logged onto Amazon’s internal computer network either from a company laptop, which Amazon doesn’t provide Tier 1 associates, or from a warehouse break room, where company computers are set up. Now, even if a Tier 1 associate accesses this tool, they still won’t be able to see their fellow Tier 1 colleagues.

Some current and former Amazon corporate and warehouse employees aren’t buying Amazon’s reasoning. Several who spoke to Recode said the Phone Tool is one of the only ways for an Amazon employee to search for the names of every worker who works in a given Amazon warehouse.

“It is the easiest way to get a full name and a picture of associates,” a former Amazon warehouse manager told Recode. The former manager requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

These current and former employees speculated that Amazon wants to prevent workers from passing along that information to outsiders, whether union reps or reporters. With names and photos of all workers, internal or external union organizers could have an easier time contacting workers outside of work to try to build support for unionization.

“It [feels like] a way to reduce and limit the amount of information employees can get about other employees,” the former warehouse manager said.

Others told Recode that it is just another sign that, in their opinion, Amazon views the hundreds of thousands of employees that pick, pack, and ship products as disposable when compared to its white-collar workers. There are the obvious pay disparity and working condition differences between corporate staff and front-line employees, and erasing them from a main staff directory seems to be another reminder of that corporate class structure.

“It treats them even more as disposable and less-than,” a current Amazon white-collar worker told Recode.

Parmley, the Amazon spokesperson, declined to comment on the speculation that the Phone Tool change is linked to union organizing.

At a minimum, though, this episode highlights a yearslong buildup of distrust between segments of Amazon’s workforce and the tech giant’s management team on issues ranging from climate activism to warehouse working conditions.

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow.
Marvel Studios

You’ll have to wait until July to see Black Widow in theaters or at home.

Not long ago, Disney thought you’d be ready to go to the movie theaters by early May. Now it has changed its mind: Disney is pushing back the release of Black Widow, its next big-budget Marvel movie, from May 7 to July 9.

And even then, Disney is hedging its bets: Instead of insisting that you watch Scarlett Johansson in theaters on opening day, the studio will also let customers stream the movie at home, via its Disney+ service, for an additional $30.

Both of those developments are significant moves. In a single press release, the entertainment giant is telling the world two things:

  1. Disney doesn’t think there will be enough demand for its most popular and valuable movie franchise in a couple of months — either because consumers don’t want to go or because, in some cases, they will be prevented from going by remaining pandemic restrictions.
  2. And even when Disney does bring Black Widow to theaters in July, it is worried enough about demand to get rid of the theatrical “window” — the gap between when movies debut in theaters and when they are available for home viewing.

The collapsed window may be even more significant for Disney, since it was the studio that had previously insisted that it was committed to bringing its biggest movies to theaters first and keeping the existing system intact. For years, other studios have talked about, and in some cases experimented with, changing that system, but they weren’t able to do so because of pushback from the movie theaters — even as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon helped customers expect to stream big movies at home right away, without waiting at all.

The pandemic changed all of that: A year ago, as the stay-at-home rules closed theaters around the world, some major studios started to take high-profile movies, like Trolls 2, and let consumers stream them at home. And late last year, AT&T’s WarnerMedia said it would stream all of the movies it had planned to release in 2021 and show them through its HBO Max service, at no additional charge.

But Disney, whose movie strategy is based exclusively on big-budget films from franchises it thinks will draw huge audiences — Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar — has made a point of committing to traditional theatrical releases.

In December, shortly after WarnerMedia announced its shift to streaming movies, Disney told investors it was still planning on bringing Black Widow to theaters in May, even though it was willing to experiment with other release strategies for less-valuable movies. Earlier this month, for instance, Disney put out Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time; it will try that strategy again on May 28 for Cruella, a riff on its 101 Dalmations franchise. And it has put other movies that had been scheduled for theaters exclusively on Disney+, like last year’s Soul.

Black Widow is in a different category than those movies — or, at least, it was meant to be. The announcement comes as increasing numbers of theaters are opening across the country — even Los Angeles and New York City, two major movie markets that have been shut down for a year, are starting to allow people into indoor theaters again, at limited capacity.

People sit at a long conference table, each with their own laptop in front of them.
One of the many conference rooms at the then-startup Gusto, in San Francisco in 2018. | Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

From where we work to how our work is measured, office work will be permanently different after the pandemic.

Someday, perhaps someday soon, when vaccination rates are high enough and the coronavirus relents, the world will return to normal. But in its wake, something as massive and meaningful as a global pandemic will leave many things different, including how we work.

In particular, knowledge workers — high-skilled workers whose jobs are done on computers — will likely see the biggest changes, from our physical locations to the technology we use to the ways in which our productivity is measured. In turn, how we work impacts everything from our own personal satisfaction to new inventions to the broader economy and society as a whole.

These changes represent a chance to remake work as we know it and to learn from the mistakes of our working past — if we’re thoughtful about how we enact them.

Here are 10 ways in which office work will never be the same.

1. Working from home is here to stay

Even after the pandemic is no longer forcing us to work from home, many people will continue to do so. That’s because working from home has worked surprisingly well for both employers and employees. People were productive and employers saw a future in which they were less tethered to expensive office real estate. And, going forward, many of the things that aren’t working — having to homeschool while working, for example, or feeling like work never ends because you never leave your house — will be alleviated when we’re not in the middle of a global health crisis that’s adding extra hurdles and stress to working from home.

“One of the few great upsides of the pandemic is we’ve accelerated 25 years of drift toward working from home in one year,” Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who studies remote work, told Recode.

 Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Commuters wait for train service to be restored after a severe thunderstorm in New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2018.

At the height of the pandemic, more than half of the US workforce worked from home, up from the single digits previously, according to market research company IDC. When the pandemic is over, those who can work from home will likely do so two or three days a week, according to research by Bloom and his co-authors that surveyed worker desires as well as their boss’s promises. This so-called hybrid work model, in which some workers work from home some of the time, will be the dominant office job arrangement. A smaller share of workers — 15 to 18 percent — will be remote full time, according to estimates from business consulting firm Emergent Research.

And there are measurable benefits to working from home.

Working from home allows people to skip their commute and can give them more flexibility in the hours they work, an arrangement workers are on board with and willing to put a dollar sign on. Bloom’s data says employees are willing to take an 8 percent pay cut for the opportunity to work from home two or three days a week. Remote employees save an average of $248 a month, according to a survey by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics. Office management software company Envoy found that nearly half of employees said they’d leave their job if it didn’t offer a hybrid work model after the pandemic.

In short, the ability to work from home is no longer a perk; not allowing it is a dealbreaker.

2. Flexibility is a double-edged sword

For years, workers have clamored for more flexibility in their work to accommodate their lives. And working from home will give them that.

“A lot of our employees said, ‘I’m getting more sleep,’ ‘I’m exercising more,’ ‘I’m making myself healthier food,’ ‘I know my neighbors more,’” said Ali Rayl, Slack’s VP of customer experience. “And people are really digging that kind of getting back to their lives.”

The flip side to all this flexibility is an increased feeling that work never ends: People are logging longer hours, attending more meetings, and complaining of just generally being always on. It’s tough to find work-life balance when the lines between the two are blurred.

Time spent in meetings is more than double what it was early last year, according to a new report from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, which combines insights from people using its tools like Microsoft 365 as well as a survey of more than 30,000 workers. Working from home requires more context than people would grasp naturally in an office, and people have created more meetings to fill the void.

People spend an additional hour — for a total of 10 hours — connected to Slack than they did pre-pandemic. The amount of time people spend actively working in or communicating on Slack jumped 30 percent to 110 minutes a day, according to the company. That means more time with Slack in the background and the foreground of our lives.

All of this can hamper productivity and generally leave people feeling worn out. Microsoft’s January survey found that 54 percent feel overworked and 39 percent say they feel exhausted.

Jared Spataro, corporate VP for Microsoft 365, considers this an “opportunity” for leadership to improve the experience at work. “If you just go with the flow and let the default reign, you’ll end up in a worse place than pre-pandemic,” he said.

Jan Rezab, founder and CEO of productivity analytics firm Time Is Ltd., agrees that a lot of our worst habits in the office — interruptions that keep us from focusing, meetings for the sake of meetings — have been carried over to remote work. “We’re just as unproductive as we were before,” he said.

3. Some populations will benefit from working from home while others struggle

The benefits of working from home will not be evenly felt. While some groups have enjoyed working from home, the arrangement has been challenging for others.

First of all, only some jobs accord workers the ability to work from home in the first place, and that has largely been divided by income and education. People who work in high-skilled jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher were more likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, according to surveys from Pew Research Center. In turn, people with lower-paying jobs were more likely to be in danger of contracting Covid-19 at work. The divide between those who can and can’t work from home will likely persist after the pandemic, creating what Stanford’s Bloom called a “two-tier economy” of who gets to enjoy work-from-home benefits and who doesn’t.

Many presumed young people, who are more familiar with technologies like video calls, would have had an easier time with the transition to working from home than their older and less tech-savvy peers, but multiple studies say that hasn’t been the case.

Employees over the age of 40 were more likely to say they would prefer to continue working remotely, while employees younger than 40 were more likely to want to return to the office, according to one study of teleworkers done by Bucknell University. Young people felt they were missing out on the mentorship and soft skills they would have received working alongside older colleagues in the office, who can help them advance their careers.

“They are impatient to be successful,” Eddy Ng, a professor at Bucknell University and one of the report’s authors, told Recode. “They now know the value of social capital and the need to interact with others.”

Meanwhile, more senior employees as well as managers — many of whom had been skeptical of remote work pre-pandemic — are more likely to prefer working from home. About 60 percent of business leaders said they are “thriving,” according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, while a similar percentage of Gen Z workers are only “surviving,” or struggling with well-being and mental health.

There are a bunch of reasons for the age divide.

 Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Following the last recession, companies have been packing more and more people into open office spaces, a practice known as “densification.”

Work-from-home software proved surprisingly effective and simple for people of all ages, with 80 percent of employees in the Bucknell survey reporting that they had an easy time figuring out and using their company information and communication technology (think Zoom, Slack, Teams). Managers reported fewer distractions — namely, their underlings interrupting them at the office. Additionally, older employees are more secure in their careers. They are also more likely to have nicer, bigger, and more private home arrangements than younger people, who often have to contend with roommates or young children at home.

Indeed, half of parents with children under 18 said it was difficult to get work done without interruptions, compared with just 20 percent for people without kids at home, according to Pew. Women, who shoulder outsized responsibility for child care in addition to their jobs, have a more difficult relationship to working from home. They are much more likely to report burnout than men and have been increasingly leaving the workforce altogether, though women are also more likely than men to want to continue working from home post-pandemic. Of course, a lot of these troubles might be alleviated once the pandemic is over and other aspects of life — and child care — go back to normal.

A Slack study showed that race also affects people’s experience of working from home.

Nearly all Black knowledge workers currently working from home, some 97 percent, want a hybrid or fully remote work model, compared with 79 percent of their white counterparts, according to data from Slack’s Future Forum survey. The report posited a number of reasons, including remote work reducing the need for “code switching,” or making oneself and one’s speech fit the norms of a majority white office. Being outside the office also reduced instances of microaggressions and discrimination and improved Black employees’ ability to recover from those incidents. With remote work, Black knowledge workers reported a greater sense of belonging, a greater ability to manage work stress, and greater work-life balance than their white colleagues.

4. The office will still exist, but you’ll use it differently

While many companies are downsizing their office footprints, most are not getting rid of offices. Indeed, the office will still play an important — though different — role in people’s work.

More time in the office will be geared toward collaborative work that’s more challenging at home. Employers are also eager to revive the serendipity and problem-solving a physical office engenders — think of running into a colleague from a different department in the break room and getting her outside perspective on a task that’s tripping you up.

“We’re starting to think about the office as a tool in our toolkit for getting certain kinds of work done,” Slack’s Rayl said. “Folks come into the office a couple times a week, they have plans with colleagues to get together and brainstorm and plan collaboration in person.”

And to accommodate this type of work, the office itself will need a bit of a makeover.

Kate Lister, president of future of work consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, expects more emphasis on shared spaces, which would be a flip from the previous configuration of the office space. Instead of offices that have typically had 80 percent personal space and 20 percent shared space, she said, 80 percent of the space going forward will be collaborative, while only 20 percent will be earmarked for people’s own use.

To aid the reconfiguration, some companies will replace people’s personal desks with “hot desks,” or space that any employee can use for private work when they’re in the office.

These trends in total are also a surprising boon for coworking companies like WeWork and Industrious. Even companies that are forgoing their own office space altogether are likely to pay for flexible office space for those times in which they do in fact need an office.

Technology in the office will also need a bit of a reboot, to accommodate meetings so that people videoconferencing in from home feel on equal footing with those in the office. This will require better video hardware and software so that at-home workers don’t feel like they’re just a box on a screen.

A whole cottage industry has popped up to make remote communication more like real-life interactions — or at least less soul-crushing than a day of Zoom calls. This ranges from cameras that follow you around the room to software that makes virtual venues more lifelike or immersive.

5. Expect more AI, automation, and freelancers

Thanks to layoffs during the pandemic, many companies will have to operate with a leaner workforce than before. In turn, the remaining workers will have to rely more heavily on technology, fast-tracking existing trends toward artificial intelligence, automation and contract work.

“The introduction or acceleration of these tools should allow us to be able to handle the volume of business without having to do a lot of hiring until the economy is really booming again,” Kate Duchene, CEO of consulting firm Resources Global Professionals (RGP), told Recode.

Indeed, every time there’s an economic downturn there’s a push toward automation, since it cuts down on the very expensive cost of human labor.

“There’s little doubt that there’s been more automation this year, as financial stress coincided with better applications, and health and social distance concerns to create more demand,” Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told Recode. He stressed that automation is not sequestered to blue-collar workers, but that office jobs are particularly in danger of automation.

Companies hoping to be more agile are also likely to outsource more work to contract and freelance workers, who they have to pay less since they’re short-term and don’t get as many benefits as employees.

“Companies said it last recession, and they’re really saying it this recession,” explained Steve King, partner at Emergent Research. “Everybody’s telling us that … we’re going to increase our use of external talent or non-employee labor.”

He added, “Once you’ve made the decision to integrate someone in remotely, whether they’re a traditional employee or not, it’s not as big a leap to then say, ‘Oh, we can hire a contractor to do that work.’”

For those of us left with jobs, we can take solace in the fact that our work might be less tedious.

Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC, expects workplace software to incorporate a lot more artificial intelligence and machine learning in the next five years that will help knowledge workers do their jobs with less drudgery.

“So many of us, when we work, such a big percentage is in menial tasks and not the actual valuable work,” he said. “What if we were able to automate a portion of menial tasks and spend more time on meaningful work?”

With more artificial intelligence and automation, “More barriers to work getting done will be removed so work can be done quicker, more intelligently, and possibly even more creatively.”

For instance, workplace software like Zoom and Teams already lets people transcribe meetings. What if future versions trimmed those meetings down to shorter videos or text that would be most germane to you?

6. Our communication will be more asynchronous

As we move more toward a hybrid work model, don’t expect your colleagues to get back to you right away. While in an office, you can walk right up to your boss or coworker to ask a question. The creators of workplace software are hoping to make things a little different online. Specifically, to enable a remote workforce that might be scattered around the globe, they’re hoping to replace a lot of synchronous communication (in-person chats, live video, phone calls) with conversations that can happen at people’s leisure (messages, posts, recorded video).

The intention is to allow people to better concentrate than they could in the office, and to accommodate the realities of working from home.

“The companies that have navigated this the best are the ones that have figured out what’s urgent and how can we plan to make sure that fewer things are urgent,” Slack’s Rayl said. Doing so enables workers, especially parents, to make room for their lives at home, including teaching their kids or bringing them to school. “The expectation that everyone’s on all the time and everyone responds instantly is deeply unhealthy and it’s not equitable.”

 Keri Wiginton/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
An open office layout at Coyote Logistics in Chicago, Illinois, in 2016.

As it stands, Time Is Ltd.’s Rezab says that most employees use existing communications software like Slack and Teams in a way that’s very synchronous. When people message their colleagues, they expect a quick response and they usually get it, which can be deleterious for concentration.

“Most of the current users of tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and others, treat it as synchronous communication,” Rezab said. “And I think — personal opinion — that’s wrong.” For communication to be truly asynchronous, the software will have to be better at managing people’s expectations.

Slack has been adding a number of subtle tweaks to goad people toward asynchronous communication, like putting up do not disturb notifications if people connect their calendars and are in a meeting. The company is also working on a feature that would allow asynchronous video recording so that people can add video comments to a conversation about a prototype, for example, without all having to gather in an hour-long meeting to do so.

Smaller workplace software companies like Volley and Friday are creating platforms that are meant to be inherently asynchronous, with features like pre-recorded video and allocated time for catching up.

It will also be important for companies themselves to govern how people use their workplace communications software and what’s expected of them and their response times. The vast majority of communications on Slack and Teams happen through direct messages, which many people feel compelled to respond to more quickly than, say, a post in a channel. To make sure this doesn’t feel just as pressing as a tap on the shoulder, companies need to institute guidelines that assure workers a response isn’t immediately necessary.

Unfortunately, since many companies moved to remote work so swiftly at the onset of the pandemic, they didn’t have time to put into place best practices for communicating online and working from home, Lister, from Global Workplace Analytics, said. Just because things are working okay doesn’t mean they can’t be made better.

7. How our productivity is measured will change

One long-held criticism of the physical office is that metrics, like how long you spent there, mattered to management, and this assumption cultivated a system that benefited, say, young men without families, who could log more hours. Now, without as much emphasis on the actual office, the way that managers measure an employee’s success will also change.

RGP’s Duchene said the emphasis for knowledge workers has moved to output, or how much work an employee actually does.

“When I think about two years ago, how did you evaluate people in a workplace setting, it was aptitude, attitude, and attendance,” Duchene said. “Now that you don’t have those things on a daily basis, the concentration is on output.”

IDC’s Kurtzman thinks productivity metrics will be more qualitative: the outcome of production rather than the raw amount of something produced. He argued, “How much you can produce is an assembly-line metric, but doesn’t tell me how happy the customer is and if the customer will buy from you again.”

As definitions of productivity stand, the majority of workers in multiple studies say they’re just as productive or even more productive at home as they were at the office. Duchene, however, cautioned against solely looking at productivity, since that could cause other parts of work — like culture — to suffer.

“You can’t make that your priority and ignore everything else,” Duchene said.

8. Culture will be harder to create

It’s much harder to make and retain a company culture when workers aren’t in the same room. And that ability has diminished as the pandemic has worn on.

“I wasn’t worried at the beginning of Covid about keeping the culture alive — we were all reaching out, everyone was so concerned about community,” said RGP’s Duchene. “Then we got in a rhythm of ‘this is here to stay’ so there’s not as much energy.”

In turn, workers have been limiting their interactions to a more core group of people — the ones they work with directly — rather than communicating with a wider range of groups that they may have in the office. And judging from onboarding metrics during the pandemic, that shift is primed to continue. The number of connections new hires make at work — inferred by time spent in small meetings and in the number of direct communications with different people — is down 17 percent compared with pre-pandemic, according to data from Time Is Ltd.

“It’s been a good thing for productivity, a bad thing for culture,” Duchene said.

 David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Empty desks at the Fuze office in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 10, 2020.

Without interactions with a wide range of people at your company, company culture suffers since people aren’t exposed to the same set of behaviors and values.

There have been some unexpected consequences as well. It’s notable, for example, that being physically separate from management has led to a spike in people reporting their employers for white-collar malfeasance. And the lack of cultural cohesion has implications for how the business operates.

“This will create silos in the business, massive silos,” Time Is Ltd.’s Rezab said, which can contribute to groupthink and can hinder progress. “The company gets things done by collaborating cross-functionally,” Rezab said.

To rectify this, management will have to be more intentional with connecting people across the organization, rather than just their direct colleagues. So far it’s been difficult to mimic online the culture-building that happens in person.

9. We’re more human at work

You don’t come out of seeing your coworkers — and their living rooms and their babies and their pets — in the middle of a global pandemic without getting a little closer to them. And such closeness makes people happier and better at work.

The pandemic did a good job of humanizing people, not only because we saw more of their interior lives but because we worked with them while going through something immense.

“It was in fact a shared experience, but it was also coping with the shared experience together. It was people helping each other do it better,” IDC’s Kurtzman said. “That technology actually made us more human is a fascinating thought.”

Indeed, one in six people reported crying with a coworker this year, according to Microsoft’s study, and nearly one in three say they are more likely to be their authentic selves at work than last year. About 40 percent said they were less embarrassed when their home life showed up at work compared to how things used to be. All of these interactions correlate with a better sense of well-being, higher productivity, and more positive perceptions of work, according to the study.

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. It’s easier to misinterpret text than it is in-person communication, and a lot more of our conversations are happening that way.

As such, we’ve become increasingly reliant on emoji to convey what we’re trying to say.

On Slack, emoji usage jumped a whopping 80 percent since the onset of the pandemic when we shifted to remote work, according to the company. According to a survey commissioned by Slack, the five most popular remote work emoji are the face with tears of joy, red heart, thumbs up, rolling on the floor laughing, and smiling face with heart eyes.

10. More of your colleagues will live somewhere else

As more people can work from anywhere, more people will. There’s been more than a five-fold increase in the number of remote job postings on LinkedIn compared with last year. And nearly half of workers said they’re planning to move now that they can work remotely, according to both the Microsoft survey and one from Owl Labs.

This has the potential to reverse a decades-long move toward big cities.

“The shift to the big cities has been decelerated,” Emergent Research’s King said, “because at least in the near term — the next three to five years — location won’t matter as much.”

Already rents have plunged in big cities like New York and San Francisco, while climbing in second- and third-tier cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In turn, industries built up alongside major office worker cities could struggle.

For those knowledge workers who move, this is a chance for more freedom in where they live and the chance to enjoy a higher standard of living than they had when tethered to big expensive cities. For employers, this means access to a wider range of talent than can be found in the city they’re headquartered in.

It’s one of the many changes the pandemic has wrought on office work.

 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Office buildings stand largely empty in New York City on March 4, 2021.
A Chevy truck is half assembled and sitting in front of an American flag in Flint, Michigan.
President Biden has ordered a 100-day supply chain review for critical supplies like semiconductor chips, which are increasingly important to auto manufacturers. | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

Disruptions in the global high-tech supply chain spell bad news for Chevy Silverados and Samsung phones alike.

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This year, some of GM’s newest cars won’t have a critical feature — an advanced fuel management system that saves gas — because the company couldn’t get enough chips, the transistor-filled semiconductors that keep so many of the devices we use today running. The company announced last week that customers who buy the new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups between now and the end of the summer will have a lower fuel economy, showing that even a year after the pandemic started wreaking havoc on global supply chains, a chip shortage is still disrupting entire industries.

GM isn’t the only automaker facing setbacks and even layoffs because of the shortage. Last week, Ford said the chip shortage, along with weather conditions, left the company canceling shifts and building some vehicles without all their parts. Honda, Volkswagen, and Toyota have similarly warned of chip supply issues or reduced production in recent months.

Meanwhile, the United States has struggled to bring in enough of everything — from much-needed N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment to bicycles to game consoles and laptops — since Covid-19 first arrived. The chip shortage has continued to hurt device makers, too. Samsung recently warned that it might skip the introduction of its popular Galaxy Note phone this year. It doesn’t help that other shortages, including a shortage of shipping containers, are also causing ripple effects in the supply chain.

But the chip shortage, specifically, points to particular weaknesses in the US high-tech manufacturing industry. In response to growing concerns about the chip shortage and its consequences, President Joe Biden signed an executive order in February starting a 100-day review of supply chains for critical products, with a particular focus on advanced technology components, also fulfilling one of his campaign promises.

Biden’s review won’t just look at the US supply of semiconductors. Over the next two months, the administration will also look at America’s manufacturing abilities for pharmaceuticals, high-capacity batteries, and rare-earth elements that are found in everything from lasers to electric vehicles. There’s also a broader, year-long review of sectors ranging from food and energy to transportation. The ultimate goal, the president said in February, is “making sure the United States can meet every challenge we face in the new era.”

The review could be essential to helping the US economy recover and could better prepare the country for a future crisis. Even as millions of people get vaccinated against Covid-19 and the economy picks back up, supply chain disruptions linked to the chip shortage are proving particularly persistent. The impact of the chip shortage on US autoworkers alone prompted governors from eight states to urge Biden to take action in late February, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Chris Coons have asked Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost semiconductor supply.

“More than a warning, [the pandemic] was a data point for us that this can happen — and if it happens, look what it can do,” explains Seckin Ozkul, the founder and director of the Supply Chain Innovation Lab at the University of South Florida. “[When] a big disruption happens, how can you make sure that your supply chain is going to recover and not have major impacts as soon as possible?” Monday alone demonstrated how fragile the chip situation is. A fire at one automotive chipmaker’s factory in Japan sent stocks in Toyota, Nissan, and Honda down more than 3 percent.

But boosting US supplies of chips, or any other high-tech product, can’t happen overnight. Building new manufacturing facilities can be tricky, time-intensive, and expensive, and some previous government efforts to boost high-tech jobs in the US have failed. At the same time, recent decades have seen more and more of this manufacturing taking place outside the US, in part because it can be cheaper, easier, and more efficient to make these high-tech products abroad.

Now that the Biden administration has started down the difficult path of analyzing just how insecure America’s supply chain for these hard-to-manufacture components is, the companies affected by the shortage are trying to figure out what to do until a solution appears on the horizon. While this review alone won’t boost US high-tech manufacturing, the hope is to set the groundwork to secure US supply chains before another crisis hits.

Making chips is hard

When the pandemic arrived, the demand for computers and other electronics skyrocketed as many people shifted to working, learning, and playing at home. Like many other manufacturers, chip producers also had to adapt and in some cases close down their facilities due to Covid-19 safety measures. Because chip manufacturing is a long, complex process — the Semiconductor Industry Association says lead times for semiconductor orders can be as long as 26 weeks — surging demand and limited supply have caused ripple effects that the manufacturers and customers are still feeling a year later.

“Making a semiconductor is perhaps the most highly complex manufacturing process on the planet,” Falan Yinug, SIA’s director of industry statistics and economic policy, told Recode. “It can involve more than a thousand process steps and hundreds of advanced machines needed to pack tens of billions of transistors on a chip the size of a quarter.”

Then there’s the fact that only a few existing manufacturers, such as Intel and Samsung (which helps make chips for companies like Nvidia), currently have the capacity to produce these semiconductors. Complicating chip supplies even further are limits the Trump administration placed on the largest China-based chip manufacturer, SMIC, amid ongoing trade tensions. Now, without enough semiconductors to meet global demand, we’ve seen shortages in chips needed for everything from PlayStations to Ford F-150s.

Some automakers are facing even worse delays because of decisions they made in the pandemic. When Covid-19 first arrived, some carmakers gave up their spot in line to buy semiconductors, in anticipation that the economic downturn would reduce demand for vehicles. At the same time, device makers that saw a surge in demand for their tech rushed to pick up chip orders that would have otherwise gone to the automakers.

A year later, there’s now much greater demand for cars, and companies like GM and Honda want more chips so they can increase their production. But now, these automakers are not only competing with increased demand for chips from device manufacturers, but also facing months-long delays for their own orders. “Fast forward, May hits, and then the automobile plants are back online, and then they start placing orders,” explained Patrick Penfield, a supply chain professor at Syracuse University. “But now you have a hole in the pipeline.”

Now, the chip shortage is holding up production lines in car and truck plants. As a result, some autoworkers are idle, and some have even been laid off. That’s only fueled concern among US politicians and some industry leaders about the US’s relatively meager domestic manufacturing capacity for these chips, and high-tech manufacturing more broadly. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently warned, “Semiconductor manufacturing is a dangerous weak spot in our economy and in our national security.”

Just 12 percent of global chip manufacturing is now based in the US, compared to the 37 percent share that the country had in 1990, according to research SIA conducted with the Boston Consulting Group. The primary reasons for this decline are, according to UCLA supply chain professor Christopher Tang, the low cost of production in other countries and chemical processes with less stringent regulation abroad.

“We never had a coordinated plan, meaning these are free markets. So any companies can ship anything outside the country,” Tang explained. “So now is a wake-up call. We have shifted virtually everything, so now it’s an empty vault.”

There are many ideas for how to boost high-tech manufacturing in the US. Some, like Tang, say that part of the key is boosting the number of US students who study STEM and creating more high-tech jobs in the field. Another strategy up for consideration is beefing up US “industrial policy,” which would have the government take a more active role in encouraging high-tech industries in the US, whether through tax benefits, direct investment in research, or government subsidies. In his presidential campaign, Biden even proposed wielding the government’s power to buy these supplies directly from US manufacturers. Now with his supply chain review, Biden appears to be taking a first step toward pursuing that goal.

Biden wants to see how high-tech American manufacturing can be

Biden’s supply chain review is a first step toward better understanding what the weaknesses in US supply chains are, before starting the more costly process of what to do about it.

“In general, we are vulnerable to disruptions on global interconnected supply chains. What are the solutions to that?” said North Carolina State engineering professor Julie Swann. “First, understand your supply chain, right? Know where your risks are, so that you’re not caught unawares when it happens. And that requires, really, a deep dive in many different industries.”

In part, a Biden administration official told Politico, the goal is to ensure that the US isn’t too reliant on other countries and to make US-based supply chains more resilient. In his executive order calling for a review, Biden mentioned everything from another pandemic to a cyberattack to “climate shocks and extreme weather events” as examples of crises that could make it more difficult to get much-needed supplies in the future.

The supply chain review will be comprehensive. Over the course of the review — which is currently ongoing — the heads of several government agencies will reach out to industry stakeholders, researchers, NGOs, labor unions, and regional and local governments to study the supply chain. The Commerce Department, which is leading the semiconductor supply chain review, is soliciting public comment on all sorts of detailed questions about US chip manufacturing, from the location of chip manufacturing assets to the risks climate change could pose to chip production, as well as the risks faced if the US doesn’t boost its manufacturing capabilities in time.

In two months, the Commerce Department will submit to Biden its first report on the supply of semiconductor chips. Next year, it will submit an even broader report covering “critical sectors and subsectors of information and communications technology.”

“They’re going to be doing a thorough review of what are we able to do here: What are we already doing here versus what can we do here,” Ozkul, the supply chain expert, explained. That could be pretty difficult. Research firm McKinsey has noted that the average large company has more than 5,000 suppliers.

Even securing enough specialists to build a particular part of a device can be a challenge, as Willy Shih, a management practice professor, explained in Harvard Business Review last year. A typical laptop might require an LCD panel made by just a handful of billion-dollar facilities in Asia, as well as chips made by Intel that may be produced in the US but need to travel abroad for packaging. “The end result is that we have many suppliers scattered around the world upon whom manufacturers depend for critical components,” Shih explains, which makes it very hard for a manufacturer to be completely self-sufficient in a single country.

Following the supply chain review, the goal isn’t necessarily that the US produces all or even most of a particular product or its subcomponents, experts told Recode. Instead, it’s about making sure the country has stockpiles; coordinated supply chains of needed supplies and components from different parts of the world; and enough domestic manufacturing to ensure the US can weather another crisis.

But the task of building new high-tech manufacturing in the US would be a tall order. For instance, a 2017 deal then-President Donald Trump organized with the electronics giant Foxconn to build a massive LCD factory in Wisconsin — and create 13,000 jobs — turned out to be a dud. The billions of dollars in public investment for the Foxconn plant have resulted in just a fraction of the jobs originally promised and mostly empty buildings, though the company now says it might start building electric vehicles for Fisker there.

Meanwhile, provisions in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act have authorized the government to provide potentially billions in incentives for chip manufacturing in the US. Leaders of the chip industry are now urging Biden to fund these efforts, and members of Congress are considering next steps. Biden has said he’ll push for $37 billion for the effort. But boosting tech manufacturing in the US isn’t as simple as spending billions of dollars, canceling contracts around the world, ditching the global suppliers, and suddenly having a bunch of new jobs available to US workers.

“Before you blow up the old bridge, make sure you build a new bridge,” Tang said. “Make sure the new bridge is tested, and keep the old bridge running.”

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Travelers arrive for flights at O’Hare international Airport on March 16, 2021 in Chicago. 
Americans are eager to get back to normal activities like flying. It’s probably not safe to do that yet. | Getty Images

TSA data shows Americans are flying more than last year, despite the threat of another wave of Covid-19 cases.

The number of people flying each day in the United States officially surpassed last year, according to checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It seems Americans are increasingly behaving like they’re done with the pandemic, even as it continues to wreak havoc on the country.

The number of people who passed through TSA checkpoints at airports in the US surpassed last year’s numbers for the first time earlier this week, with 1.1 million people doing so on Wednesday versus fewer than 954,000 a year ago. That gap was even wider Thursday, with 1.4 million people clearing checkpoints in the US — nearly double what it was a year earlier.

Of course, we’re still nowhere near where we used to be in terms of air travel. In the third week of March 2019, more than 2 million people went through TSA checkpoints each day.

Chart: More people are going through US airport security than last year

The actual number of commercial flights is still slightly lower than it was at this point last year, according to domestic flight data from Flightradar24. That means flights are fuller than they had been at the beginning of the pandemic as well, which might also mean they’re more likely to spread the virus.

The surge in air travel is happening for a few reasons, including increased vaccination rates that may make people feel more comfortable traveling, spring break for many young Americans, and general fatigue with how the pandemic has changed our lives. It’s been a year since many cities and states around the US went into lockdown and people were urged not to travel. After so much time stuck at home, people seem eager to return to normal life.

The state of the pandemic in the US, however, is much worse than it was at this time last year. Currently, there are more than 50,000 new cases recorded each day, compared to a few hundred at this point last year. Even accounting for the fact that Covid-19 tests were less available then, the situation is much worse now. Thousands of Americans are dying each day and cases are spiking in a number of states, such as Michigan. Additionally, a number of highly contagious Covid-19 variants could cause another wave of new cases.

Traveling increases people’s chances of getting and spreading the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose guidelines tell people to delay travel and stay at home. The US requires all people traveling into the US to have a negative Covid-19 test, but the same guidelines aren’t mandatory for people flying within the US. And while a number of industry studies have said that flying is safe, some of their models are suspect.

So even though it’s clear Americans are impatient to get back to activities like flying, it’s not clear yet if vaccinations are happening fast enough to prevent another wave.

Inside The New Downtown LA Whole Foods Market Inc. Store

Our livelihoods depend on a ratings system that must change.

It was the last job of the night. At 9 o’clock in New York City, my Instacart Shopper app alerted my phone: an order for a store in Brooklyn with delivery to Manhattan. I was exhausted from a long day of shopping and delivering 24-packs of Poland Spring bottles and gallons of milk jugs, but I decided to chase the extra $30 and deliver to Jill on the Upper West Side. [Author’s note: Details have been changed to protect her privacy.]

The order was typical, but there were several out-of-stock items given the time of day, which I messaged Jill about through the app to no response. Hoping for the best, I dropped off the order. To my chagrin, the next morning a four-star rating appeared on my phone, which in the world of Instacart shoppers meant that I was effectively facing a massive pay cut.

Instacart does not give us insight into whom our low ratings come from, only a dose of paranoia and anxiety to figure it out and save our income. So, out of desperation and a sense — given my deliveries of the day before — that Jill was the rater in question, I drafted her a letter explaining how, thanks to Instacart’s ratings system, a rating like hers can destroy a shopper’s livelihood.

For a minute, I thought about dropping it off at her apartment, but then reality sunk in. Such a letter might appear extreme, accusatory, or aggressive, as well as make matters worse. I didn’t even know whether Jill was actually the customer who rated me. At the same time, the repercussions of four-star ratings have left me with little choice but to tell others about what it’s like on my side of the app.

I have been shopping for Instacart for eight months and usually work 40 hours per week to meet my expenses. As a commission gig, it felt like an opportunity to make more money than an hourly wage entry-level job in the entertainment industry, where I am pursuing a career. Yet relying on the app for income has illuminated to me the divisiveness of platforms that facilitate services such as Instacart. As a shopper, I believe the app perniciously prevents genuine communication between the two parties using it, while arming one with the capacity to truly punish the other in a way my customers might never know.

Instacart is a third-party app, similar to Uber or Airbnb but for grocery delivery. Just like other gig economy platforms, the app has two sets of users: those who order groceries and those who shop and deliver them. What transpires between shoppers and customers feeds on a precarious ratings system where a shopper’s wages tremble on a razor-thin margin of error. Someone in college with a 3.9 GPA would be considered an exceptional student, and an Uber driver with a 4.8-star rating is a trusty motorist, but an Instacart shopper whose rating falls to even 4.96 out of five stars could struggle to pay rent for the next month or even two.

The way Instacart works is this: A handful of orders appear on the shopper dashboard, and shoppers choose which orders they wish to fulfill, typically by how much pay the order promises. However, shoppers with higher customer ratings get first pick — the higher-paying orders. Even though shoppers in the, let’s say, 4.9- to five-star range provide virtually the same quality service, those even slightly below a perfect five-star rating can slip to orders that pay significantly differently.

Although Instacart automatically drops the lowest rating, I know that just one additional rating still has an impact: When I received a four-star rating after dozens of five-star ratings, my average dropped to 4.96. With it, my newly limited batches shrank my average earnings from $25 per hour to much lower, likely below New York’s $15 minimum wage. I became a bottom feeder, seemingly receiving the leftover orders that, by other shoppers’ definition, paid an amount that was not worth accepting.

For many, the urge to rate a delivery service four stars or lower makes sense on the surface. If the service did not deliver on its promise, the customer has the right to report and penalize this service — or, in this case, the worker.

A ratings system allows customers to feel safe using the service, filtering out any untrustworthy employees from handling your personal tasks. However, minor mistakes on several orders that might warrant a stern talk from a manager should not be enough to slash a worker’s wages. In my experience, however, this has been the case when receiving anything less than a five-star rating as an Instacart shopper.

For me, and for so many of the other shoppers I’ve talked to, a five-star rating versus a 4.96-star rating could mean the difference between a shopper who can pay the bills and one who cannot. That this might not even reflect the quality of their shopping but merely the bad luck of serving a punitive customer seems unjust. Shoppers should not have to live in financial and mental paranoia that one or two customers will demolish their income, livelihood, and family security with the swipe of a finger.

Ultimately, though, most customers aren’t aware of how harmful the ratings system can be. It is Instacart’s responsibility — and the responsibility of the many tech companies that pit workers against each other for profitability.


Though Instacart’s ratings system can lead to particularly perverse outcomes, it is indicative of a larger problem. Communicating through these apps on our devices, especially in a transactional way, will always put workers at the mercy of tech corporations, with little tolerance for small misunderstandings that can have serious ripple effects. It is a troubling precedent as third-party platforms increasingly become how we do not only business but also anything else in our modern world.

Unfortunately, my public service announcement will likely not enlighten Instacart on this matter. I believe it fully understands the toll of ratings on shoppers. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, Instacart gained popularity as Americans feared crowded supermarkets. With a new spotlight shining on the app, Instacart suspended the effect of customer ratings on shoppers in March. Capitalizing on an emotional moment, Instacart then reversed the move months later as the pandemic raged on.

Then, just as 2021 began, a dozen in-store shoppers — salaried shoppers who pack “delivery only” orders for full-time shoppers like me to pick up — attempted to unionize at a Mariano’s in Skokie, Illinois. Instacart supported their right to do so, but shoppers reported that high-level Instacart managers soon appeared at Mariano’s touting “anti-unionization literature.” The unionization was eventually successful, but Instacart ultimately included 10 of these shoppers in a mass layoff of 1,900 in-store employees at select supermarket chains in January, which potentially had a chilling effect on other in-store workers considering unionizing.

As the pandemic has pushed Instacart to publicly care about shoppers, many, like me, feel it privately neglects us. Shoppers still suffer and work in the same treacherous environments that leave them vulnerable to Covid-19. As shoppers have witnessed the app fine-tune labor issues — such as a wage policy that counted shoppers’ tips toward their guaranteed base pay rather than paying them out directly — it often feels like Instacart thrives on a power dynamic of punishment and command between shoppers and customers. Customers possess a near-godlike judgment over shoppers, who never fully know which customers rated them and why, while it seems to me that customers don’t know that their ratings can have such drastic effects on shoppers’ incomes.

While some people are genuinely ruthless raters, I believe the reason most Instacart customers submit lower ratings stems from the app itself, including the fact that shoppers cannot rate customers for their own conduct.

Unlike Uber, where both parties can rate each other and drivers can get a sense of which passengers are more likely to drunkenly vomit in the backseat, Instacart shoppers cannot warn each other about customers who make their order a shopping hell.

In some cases, we must wait up to an hour in crowded supermarkets full of people coughing — our parking spot expiring — waiting for a customer to respond, knowing they may penalize us for any unseen messages about refunds and replacements. Instacart customers, conversely, can act as neglectfully as they please — being unresponsive to shopper messages, canceling the order as we deliver (which results in lost tips, sometimes up to 75 percent of our total pay) — without penalty.

Instacart doesn’t do a great job of notifying customers through the app about issues beyond a shopper’s control, like replacements or missing items, putting the onus on shoppers to communicate this. A large portion of my customers do not respond to my in-app messages about out-of-stock items, which are part of virtually every order, and on the occasions they answer my calls, they are often shocked to learn I have sent them a plethora of messages in the app.

If a customer is distracted or not tech-savvy, they can miss every message from a shopper about out-of-stock groceries, only to receive a bag of replacements and missing items, leading them to believe the shopper botched the order. Though Instacart says it removes low ratings if the customer’s feedback is a reason outside of the shopper’s control, such as an app outage, it also allows customers to choose among a variety of reasons for their low ratings. The limited protections Instacart flashes are like sweeping up dust in a burning building, overlooking their larger power structure where one party is at the mercy of another.

This stark reality highlights a dark side to Instacart’s old advertisement that shoppers can “earn up to $25 per hour”: Just as I surpassed that average, four-star ratings brought me right back down below it. I was first told by Instacart support that the closest way to recover those high-paying orders and dispute a rating is to contact a support team member in the app or file a complaint with the fraud department.

I, as well as other shoppers I have spoken to, have watched complaints sit in queues for weeks or even months, while support agents have told us different time frames for addressing these reports. I was even told by another agent later that there is, in fact, no way for a shopper to remove a rating, that we can only work our way out of it by taking on more orders.

Instacart’s policy is that a shopper must complete a whopping 100 orders — roughly a month of work — following any rating in order to erase it. Despite Instacart assuring shoppers their first low rating is removed, this policy means it takes only two ratings out of 100 orders to potentially harm our wages.

After Vox reached out to Instacart, the company released an update earlier this month about the measures in place to help shoppers with its medieval ratings system, such as automatically forgiving the lowest rating. But to someone who has been a full-time shopper for almost a year and knows the ins and outs of these policies — I have experienced the brunt of them — the update felt disingenuous. Instacart mentions at the end that “there may be small pilots and adjustments in the coming months.” I am rooting for Instacart to do it, but I will hold my praise until I see it.

At this point, you might be wondering why I would stay working at a job like this. Like many shoppers, I do enjoy the process of shopping, the autonomy of accepting orders, and the flexibility of the hours. Some transactions can be touching when I have the opportunity to deliver to a customer who is clearly in need of this service, such as a single parent at home with their child or anyone unable to carry 40 pounds of groceries up the stairs.

However, Instacart has chosen to highlight the flip side of this concept, leaving interactions like those few and far between. More commonly, a class war of ratings prevails. The Covid-19 pandemic only accentuated the tension of ratings and forced Instacart to reveal — as another shopper put it — those who can afford to stay home and those who cannot.

Instead of truly connecting customers and shoppers, Instacart exposes the power dynamic between us. This tension divides us as humans, each side walled off from genuine communication through the threat of a rating. While shoppers are aware of what we sign up for, the “we appreciate essential workers” signs on the windows of the wealthy residences we deliver to become tiresome when their ratings do not reflect it.

Sadly, so long as our future is ruled by a similar fleet of third-party apps, the two parties actually using them will drift further from mutual understanding, always viewing each other based on the designs of a middleman making a profit. This digital reality conditions us to expect our every need to be satisfied instantly, distancing us from what others endure to deliver it. In turn, it is easier to pin our frustrations about the unrealistic promises of these apps on the workers immediately carrying them out. But in rating some employees as “bad apples,” we ignore the companies that might be rotting trees and instead keep their business model alive.

The ratings system feels like a way of teasing eager workers with high-paying orders before luring them into low wages. At any given time, countless shoppers with low ratings are accepting orders that amount to a wage they might not otherwise agree to in order to claw their way back to the high-paying orders they relied on previously. Such a dilemma is likely why Instacart axed its old claim that shoppers could “earn up to $25 per hour,” as many felt sustaining that pay was unrealistic.

Instacart is a microcosm of a more pernicious future where consumers believe a utopia can exist for themselves without creating a dystopia for someone else. On the other side of each transaction, though, in the case of Instacart, is a shopper politely fearing a low rating.

Even reviews for the positive interactions, which I cherish, that yield grateful feedback on the app are deleted when they fall outside the 100-order range. The ratings system so much defines the experience of the platform that I often feel judged not as a shopper or person, but like an updated version of myself, a sum of my recent ratings — a four-star version of myself. I do not want to move into a future where we view others and ourselves that way.

In the end, it was this tension that made it inherently hostile and uncomfortable for me to deliver a letter to Jill asking her to reconsider her rating. Instead, I messaged an Instacart support agent about the issue. Following our chat, I was taken aback when the app forced me to rate the agent and our interaction.

In all honesty, my instinct was to rate them one star — the agent did nothing to help me, and this was seemingly the only place I could make my voice heard. But I stopped myself, knowing how these ratings systems might work and that my low rating would hurt them. I understand that ratings pit us against each other, and this is core to Instacart’s success. My hope is for customers — and maybe the company — to understand this too.

Correction, March 19: A previous version of this article misstated the timing of an update Instacart posted on its ratings system. It was earlier this month, not last week.

Ehud Sopher is a screenwriter and director based in New York City.

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