For much of the past year, the idea of returning to the office has been little more than a hypothetical – one of those things that everyone knew was going to happen someday, but it was too far off to worry about. But lately, it has become imminent. As companies begin to recall workers or tell them to prepare to sit once more at their desks, it’s spotlighting a rift between employers and employees.
A new survey from employee experience software company Limeade found tremendous worker apprehension about a possible return to the onsite workplace. In fact, every one of the nearly 5,000 people surveyed said they were anxious about going back.
Health concerns topped the list of reasons. Some 77% of the workers said they were afraid of being exposed to COVID-19, despite the ongoing rollout and widespread availability of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Nearly as concerning to workers, though, was the lifestyle shift that will come with a 9-5 job once again. Losing the flexibility they’ve gotten used to was a concern for 71% of the people surveyed (respondents could give more than one reason).
For others, it was traffic. Exchanging the 20-step-to-the-spare-bedroom commute for one that involves traffic, subways or buses was a concern for 58% of workers.
“Employees are hesitant to let go of autonomy when it comes to their well-being — and rightfully so,” said Dr. Reetu Sandhu, director of the Limeade Institute. “Instead of focusing on the logistics of getting people back into the office, I encourage leaders to see this moment as an opportunity to ask employees, ‘what do you want work to look like in the future so that you can do your best work and take care of yourself?’ and then really listen and act accordingly. The outcome would be profound, both for people and for businesses.”
Beyond underlining employee hesitancy to return to onsite locations, the survey showcased the communications gap between employers and employees. More than half – 56% – of the workers said their organization hasn’t asked for their feedback about return-to-work policies and procedures. And 45% said their company either doesn’t take action based on survey results, or only does so to a small or uncertain extent.
Those that don’t incorporate employee feedback into their plans might come to regret it. As many as one in four workers is planning to look for a new job once they feel the threat of the pandemic has subsided, according to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey.
Another study, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, found over 40% of the more than 30,000 people surveyed in 31 countries, are considering leaving their employer this year.
One way to avoid that? Keep working from home as an option. Prudential’s survey found that 87% of American workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would prefer to continue doing so at least one day a week when the COVID threat has diminished. And 68% of all workers said a hybrid workplace model is ideal. (That’s a double-digit percentage jump from a similar survey last fall.)
At the heart of that is family concerns. Limeade’s survey found the top stressor for 82% of workers was the health and safety of themselves and their family. Working remote gives them a sense of control over that.
There are also practical benefits to remote work, as 81% of the workers surveyed said their productivity either stayed the same or increased since shifting to working from home.
“The workplace of the future is here,” says Rob Falzon, Prudential’s vice chair. “Leaders must approach each component of this new normal as an opportunity to maximize company culture and differentiate themselves as an employer of choice.”
In fact, offering a work-from-home option could be a big lure for prospective employees. Prudential’s survey found that 42% of current remote workers said if their current company did not continue to offer remote work options long term, they would look for a company that does.