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Getting Back to Work: How Employees Feel about Returning to the Office

Published: 12/15/2020 7:35 PM Updated: 12/15/2020 7:35 PM Author: PromoLeaf

With the right incentives and safety precautions, 63% of employees may be ready for a return to in-person work.

There isn’t a single business anywhere that hasn’t been affected by COVID-19 and the global pandemic. Workforces once commuting on crowded freeways to get to equally crowded offices transitioned to remote work and video conferencing. For some, the benefits were immediately apparent. Others craved a return to a new normal, whatever that might look like. What has become increasingly clear is that the office of tomorrow will not look like the pre-COVID office.

But even as we potentially turn a corner when it comes to a vaccine and potential treatments for COVID-19, are employees ready to return to work? A recent survey of 1,000 workers asked that question and others, from what precautions and benefits would make that return feasible, and what the benefits and drawbacks had come out of remote work.

Key Findings:

  • 63% of employees would be comfortable returning to the office, 27% would not, and nearly 10% are unsure about returning.

  • 76% would strongly prefer daily temperature checks for employees. 59% favor contact tracing, and just over 54% would like to see regular diagnostic testing.

  • Most would like to see the office disinfected and sanitized at least daily, if not more often.

  • The majority of respondents would like to see offices operate at a reduced capacity and have the option of working in the office less frequently.

  • Many would like to see benefits like childcare, commuting assistance, and more to help offset costs not incurred when working remotely.

  • Although working remotely came with challenges, just under 40% of workers were more productive at home, and 19% feel more productive when given a choice of where to work.

  • Many of the benefits employees want are related to recreating some of the benefits of working from home.

While the survey shows that most employees would be comfortable returning to work, let’s take a closer look at what employees want and need to make that return possible. We’ll also explore how these survey results can help employers make good decisions when planning to reopen physical spaces.

How Comfortable are Employees about a Return?

63%

Comfortable

10%

Unsure

27%

Not Comfortable

While 63% of respondents would feel comfortable returning to the office, just over 27% would not be comfortable, and another 10% are unsure about a return to normal operations. As we dive further into the survey results, we will see why that might be true. But for businesses making plans to reopen offices , the over 1 in 4 who are not comfortable could be concerning.

However, this can also be seen as an opportunity. Businesses may choose to create a hybrid workspace or decrease office capacity and the company’s physical footprint. But there is also another option. As further questions showed, there are things employers can do to make employees feel more comfortable.

...85% of employees surveyed are either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with employee communication about the timeline for a return to work...

Employer Communication and Co-Worker Trust

The first set of good news is that just over 85% of employees surveyed are either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with employee communication about the timeline for a return to work and any new protocols instituted as part of a plan to return to work. Only 2.5% were neutral. In fact, only 12% were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with employer communication. Overall this reveals that employer communication is pretty good.

Employer Communication

We asked how employees feel their employeer is communicting about the timeline for a return to work.
  • Very Satisfied 56.2%
  • Shomewhat Satisfied 29.3%
  • Somewhat Dissatisfied 8.3%
  • Very Dissatisfied 3.7%
  • Unsure/Neutral 2.5%

Along a similar line, even if regular health checks weren’t required, but self-reported health checks were, just over 75% of employees would trust their coworkers to do the right thing and not come to work when symptomatic or even sick.

This again leaves around 1 in 4 employees who would not trust their coworkers to do the right thing. But even among those who would trust their fellow office dwellers, most would prefer that employers put protocols into place to protect everyone. What protocols do they want?

Passing the Test

When it comes to health protocols, there are many “best practices” out there, and many companies with employees who cannot work remotely. Respondents were asked which of these protocols they would strongly prefer, which would be nice to have, and which they thought would not be necessary.

The results were pretty conclusive in these areas:

Passing the Test

What best reflects your support of the implementations of the protocols in your workspace?
  • Daily temperature checks: 75.8% said they would strongly prefer this, and another 19.3% said it would be nice to have, leaving only 4.9% who felt these checks would not be necessary.
  • Contact tracing for employees confirmed to have the virus: 58.9% strongly preferred, 33.2% chose “nice to have,” and only 7.9% felt it was not necessary.
  • Home health surveys: 54.7% strongly prefer, 33.2% thought they would be nice to have, and only 12.1% felt they would not be necessary.
  • Regular diagnostic testing: 54.2% preferred, 35.5% answered nicely to have, and just over 10.3% thought it would not be necessary.

What does this mean to employers? If the 1 in 4 who are not comfortable returning to the office or who don’t trust their coworkers to self-report accurately will be convinced to return to the office, testing protocols will likely need to be in place.

It’s also important to note that the “strongly preferred” answers are strongest in one of the most straightforward testing protocols, temperature checks at the door. This also has the least percentage of those who don’t feel it’s necessary, at under 5%. Still, only a little over 10% of employees think that regular diagnostic testing is not needed.

If an employer chooses to test regularly, it appears that most employees would prefer those tests to be at least weekly if not more often.

But how often should employees be tested? Essential workers like those at grocery stores and restaurants are often subject to daily tests due to their frequent contact with the public and the potential impact a positive test could have on these businesses.

Just over 40% of respondents feel daily testing is the best policy, followed by every other day at 23.2% and weekly at 24.3%. Only 5.0% think that every other week is sufficient, and 6.7% thought monthly tests would be adequate.

If an employer chooses to test regularly, it appears that most employees would prefer those tests to be at least weekly if not more often. So what is this really about? While employees who feel less frequent tests are sufficient might grumble about more frequent testing, most employees will feel more comfortable returning to work if testing happens often and regularly.

But what about the environment they work in? The days of open office spaces and closely connected cubicles are likely a thing of the past.

Preparing the Office for Occupation

What did your office look like pre-COVID? Likely there were no plexiglass dividers between desks, employees may have worked closer than six feet apart, and hand sanitizer stations were probably located in restrooms and break room areas pretty exclusively.

But post-COVID, things will likely look much different. When employees were asked about several different safety measures, many favored several best practices and safety protocols in most cases. Here are a few of the most preferred:

Preferred Safety Measures

What safety protocols do employees want most?

Plexiglass Dividers
Hand Sanitizer Stations
Social Distancing
Mask requirements at all times.
HVAC improvements and filtering.
Replacement of high touch communal items with alternatives.
Encouragement of employees to bring water bottles to avoid cross-contamination.

Another top choice is mandatory training on new health and safety protocols, with over 91% stating it would be “strongly preferred” or “nice to have.” This, of course, goes back to communication: putting new protocols in place means training employees on how they work and what you expect them to do to follow them.

“The return to work plans that are most effective are those that are clear and concise, and most parallel the safety precautions that individuals have been advised to follow since the onset of the pandemic,” Lori B. Rassas, HR Consultant, executive coach, and author of The Perpetual Paycheck says. “This includes reinforcing the six daily habits that have been shown to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and continue to be recommended by major health agencies.

  1. Wash your hands

  2. Avoid close contact with others

  3. Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering when around others

  4. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze

  5. Clean and disinfect

  6. Monitor your health.”

This type of plan closely parallels what employees want and what health care experts have been telling us all along.

65.1% strongly prefer regular disinfection of the office, and another 28.6% feel that it would be nice to have. A clear 90% would prefer or think it would be nice if surfaces were changed to antiviral materials. How often do they believe the office should be cleaned and disinfected?

Over 96% of employees prefer the office be cleaned daily, with 39% and 33% respectively choosing that cleaning happens every 2-3 hours or even hourly. Above all the other preferences, a clean office is a must for most employees.

Office Capacity and Remote Work

91%
of people prefer office capacity to be limited to half

We asked our respondents about their preferences when it came to office capacity. In light of the results of survey questions, the answers were telling.

There was again a strong preference, over 91%, for office capacity limited to under 50%, with strong preferences for no more than 25% capacity (35.3%) or even 10% capacity (25.2%). Over 57% strongly prefer the office site to be closed to non-employees, and another 34% feel this would be nice to have.

But how do you return to office operations at anywhere from 10-50% capacity when 63% of your employees are ready to return to work?

Over 53% think shifts, start times, and breaks should all be staggered to reduce the number of employees in a given common area at any given time. Another 36.9% think this would be nice to have.

This staggering of shifts is another way to offset the pain of commuting at the busiest times of the day. 32.5% feel this would be a valuable benefit when returning to the office, and 49.8% stated flexible hours as one of the most significant benefits of working remotely.

But another, and perhaps less obvious solution, is to adopt a hybrid policy, allowing employees to choose where they work and how often they want to work in the office. What do employees prefer?

Preferred In-Office Days

How often do employees want to work in the office.

Response Percent
M
T
W
T
F
Prefer to work remotely 5.7%
Prefer to be in the office one day a week 21.8%
Think twice a week is better 24.5%
Think three times a week is enough 26.5%
Would prefer four times a week 11.8%
Would like to return to the office full time 9.7%

Perhaps most telling are the last two answers in the survey. Nearly 10% of employees would like to return to the office full time. And only 6% prefer to work remotely and have no desire to return to the office at all.

“[Work From Home] is terrible branding, precisely because it fails to communicate the fundamental freedom that comes with these new policies. It’s not about further imprisoning us in our homes — it’s about empowering us to think and work exactly where we are personally most productive,” Danny Crichton wrote for TechCrunch. ” The whole point of the flexibility that “Work From Home” provides is precisely that you can work from anywhere. [Where you work] may be your home — but it may as well be a café, the hospital where a sick family member is located, a beach, a friend’s house, a hotel. The point of flexibility here is to untether our schedules and the stress associated with them and allow our work to happen where we want it to.”

A staggered, hybrid approach could allow businesses to use the same space they have now, but altering schedules and taking a blended approach of some remote work and fewer days working in the office would be best for most employees.

And for those who prefer to work in the office, the same principles of the work from anywhere option could be applied, allowing them to work on-site in a full-time capacity. Those who prefer to work remotely could continue to do so, allowing other employees with more in-office flexibility.

But why the strong preference for at least working part of the time in the office? It turns out there are things we miss about working in the same physical space with others.

Things We Miss About the Office

When asked what they missed most about working in an office, the top two answers were in-person meetings and seeing coworkers in person at the office. The pandemic’s reality is that many of us are Zoomed-out, Slacked-out, and are ready to be on anything but a video call or stuck in another chat loop.

Studies show Zoom calls are exhausting , and various aspects of them that are hard to impossible to control can change the perception others have of you. A 1.2-second delay can make other participants see you as less friendly and less focused. Silence is far from golden. It’s uncomfortable and creates anxiety about whether or not technology is working.

Other perks people miss are office freebies, their special lunch spot, company parties and gathering, and their workspace.

What People Miss Most

We asked what people miss most about working in an office.

28.2% In-person Meetings
26.1% Seeing coworkers in-person
11.7% Office "freebies"
8.9% Lunch at nearby restaurants
7.5% Company parties

But when it comes to being productive, 37.5% of respondents feel they are most productive in the office, 39.1% feel more productive at home, and 19.3% feel more productive when they have a choice where they’d like to work based on the mood they are in and likely the tasks they have to perform.

A surprising 5.1% miss their daily commute, and Microsoft has developed a “virtual commute” to help remote workers wind down at the end of the day. At the same time, 34.7% of those surveyed said one of the most significant benefits of remote work was the lack of a commute.

So how do we bring all this together?

Remote Work Pros and Cons

Long before COVID forced the issue for many employers and employees, we knew that there were pros and cons to remote work. Our survey gives some unique insight into these things from those who are used to working in in-person offices and have transitioned to remote work.

This comes with its challenges, including developing a workspace where there was not one before, dodging spouses and children who are also at home, and dealing with pets, laundry, dishes, and all the distractions of home. There is also the added danger of not leaving work behind, as the work computer is steps rather than miles away.

But there are some clear pros, and our respondents were asked to pick the biggest benefits of remote work and were allowed multiple answers. Here are the top few:

  • Flexible Hours (49.8%): We have known for a long time that not everyone works best from 9-5, and remote work allows employees to work when they are most productive and to take breaks as they need to.

  • More Family Time and Time with Pets (45.6%/32.8% respectively): From the commute to staying a little longer at the office for that last-minute 4 p.m. meeting, work in person plays havoc with family and pet time. And pets in the workplace are generally good for us.

  • No Commute (34.7%): The most significant time suck is often the commute back and forth to the office, usually done with a host of others at the same time, causing additional time wasted and stress. Saving money on a commute was also a significant benefit.

  • Better Eating Habits (31.6%): Apparently, the snack room at work and grabbing your lunch at your favorite spot are things we miss, but we have better eating habits if we are at home than away from our fridge.

The challenges listed mirror those mentioned above, and in many ways relate to the benefits of remote work:

  • More time with our spouses and children means more distractions for them and from our pets. (31.7%/46.8% respectively)

  • Some people struggle with focus at home (30.1% to be exact).

  • Screen fatigue and lack of routine. (27.2%/21.3% respectively)

The remainder of the list rounded out with things like lack of access to office supplies, virtual learning curves, and even boredom.

This survey reveals that at nearly every turn, some people work well at home, others are more productive in the office, and flexibility is critical for the remainder.

So is there a way to bring the best of both worlds together in some kind of compromise?

Bringing the Benefits of Remote Work to the Office

Respondents were asked what type of additional benefits would be helpful if they returned to the office. In other words, how can companies bring the benefits of remote work into the office?

The top three answers centered around food, children, and commuting.

Top desired benefits included employee meal programs, a fully stocked pantry with individually wrapped snacks, and even bringing pets to work. Just over 10% of respondents also want to see a fully stocked bar.

Most Requested Benefits

We asked what employees would want the most when returing to the office.

Employee meal programs
Subsidized in-home childcare
Learning pods for children on premises
Option to shift work hours
Covered commuting costs

Parents wanted to see things like subsidized childcare and tutoring and even learning pods for children to do remote learning on the premises. Children being home from school has created both challenges and opportunities for parents, and many are concerned about one or both parents returning to work and what impact that will have on their children.

Next on the list was that pesky commute: employees would like to see covered commuting costs, carpool programs, and subsidized parking. Employees don’t want to go back to paying for those things unless they have to. Another top desired benefit was the ability to move schedules around to enable commuting at off-peak times.

Quick takeaway? When it comes to food and childcare, employees want help mitigating both expenses and assisting them with education and childcare. Not having to commute is a huge benefit, and even if employees return to the office, they want to minimize both the cost and time of getting back and forth from home.

What Are Companies Doing?

“Like many other companies, we’ve been cautious about a full return to the office. Currently, we have implemented a staggered return to allow for some departments to continue working remotely,” Monica Eaton-Cardone, Co-Founder and COO of Chargebacks911 told us. “For those in office, we have strict policies in place regarding social distancing, mask-wearing in public spaces, and receiving temperature checks every morning before entering the building.”

Jonathan Bass, the Chief Executive Officer and owner of Whomhome.com gave us a lot of insight into what he is doing in his company’s factory environment:

  • The factory has its own medical office.

  • A medical professional is available at all operating times to assist with COVID-19 precautions and any other employee health concerns.

  • Anyone displaying any symptoms is tested in their medical office.

  • Employees are provided with free and safe transportation to and from work, and vehicles are sanitized before and after employees get in and out.

  • Temperature checks are performed at the beginning and end of each day.

  • Sanitizing equipment is distributed all over the warehouse.

  • Masks are provided and mandatory for all employees.

When remote work is not an option, companies are still doing everything they can to protect employees, and Whom Home has a zero virus case number that proves it.

Most companies are, first and foremost, monitoring the situation, following local guidelines and recommendations, and have staged and clearly communicated plans for the workforce to return to the office.

What does a return to the office look like for you and your company? Are your employees ready? What will you do to make them feel safe and comfortable?

With the right safety precautions, a new set of benefits, and a new mindset, returning to work can be a smooth transition. But the office, no matter what it looks like next, won’t ever be the same.

Methodology

The Promoleaf National COVID Office Survey was conducted on behalf of Wick.io by Online Panel Interviews from November 12 - November 13 among a random sample of 1000 office workers. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points. Some percentages in crosstab reports for this poll may not add to 100% due to rounding.

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