Employees Remain Ambivalent About Returning To The Office

One of the pandemic’s most significant impacts on the workplace is the changing attitude regarding whether or not employees actually need to be present in person. A recent survey on employees’ greatest return-to-the-work concerns by The Conference Board found that once-dominant fears of contracting COVID-19 or exposing family members to the virus now lag behind anxieties about physically returning to the workplace.

More than 3,600 U.S. workers participated in the survey—conducted between May 28 and June 4, and follow a structure similar to surveys conducted in late 2020 and early 2021—and they represent a cross-section of people across industries. The belief that productivity remained high while working remotely has 43 percent of respondents questioning the need to return to the workplace at all. This is a 12-percent increase from the 31 percent who felt this way in January.

The survey also found that the lower the employee’s level, the more they’re questioning the need to return to the workplace. Among individual contributors—employees—56 percent questioned the need to return compared to 18 percent of CEOs. Women also question the sense of returning more than men, 50 percent versus 33 percent, and Millennials are more likely to question the wisdom of returning than other generations—55 percent compared to Gen, 45 percent, and Baby Boomers, 36 percent.

It’s also worth noting that comfort with returning to the workplace has drastically increased in the past six months. Nearly 40 percent of respondents are very comfortable or even want to return, compared to only 17 percent in September 2020. Two-thirds of workers will be back in the office in the next three months. Nearly half of workers surveyed (43 percent) expect to return to the office by the end of September. Only 12 percent have already returned to the workplace as of June 2021.

While exposing family members to COVID-19 or contracting it personally were top concerns in September 2020, those trepidations dropped by nearly half in June, to 28 and 24 percent, respectively, in the latest survey. One-quarter of respondents also noted concerns over the deterioration of mental health, up from 13 percent in September and January. These mental health concerns were also greater among individual contributors, women and Millennials. Stress/burnout is the top well-being concern among workers, particularly among women, Millennials and individual contributors.

“What’s striking is that the same workers who question returning to the workplace given high productivity while working remotely have also expressed greater concerns about mental health, stress and burnout,” says Rebecca Ray, PhD, executive vice president, Human Capital at The Conference Board. “This reinforces the need for companies to pay close attention to the well-being of their people in remote and hybrid work arrangements.”

On average, respondents believe that more than half of their organization’s full-time workers will have a hybrid work arrangement. Almost 40 percent will work two to three days remotely, 13 percent will be remote one day per week and on-site four days, and another 30 percent will be in the office five days per week.

“While there are many difficulties surrounding a move to a hybrid work arrangement, most workers want the flexibility to choose what’s right for them,” says Amy Lui Abel, PhD, vice president, Human Capital Research at The Conference Board. “For companies, the challenge in getting this right will entail policies that are inclusive, technologies that can support the movement of workers, and leaders that can guide and manage a different workforce model.”

The survey also found that more than one-third of respondents report that their level of engagement has increased. More than one in 10 say it has increased significantly. Around half report that their level of engagement stayed the same compared to pre-pandemic. Also, respondents believe their employers have acted on their concerns throughout the last year, with 87 percent saying that they agree to some degree, 35 percent agreeing and 52 percent agreeing strongly.

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