Returning To The Workplace – 43 Percent Of US Workers Question The Need

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More and more offices plan to reopen their doors in the coming months, but will their workers show up? Amid higher productivity, 43 percent question the wisdom of returning to the workplace at all.

The new survey by The Conference Board reveals a notable shift in employees’ greatest return-to-work concerns. Once dominant fears of contracting COVID-19 or exposing family members to it now lag behind anxieties about returning at all, dropping by nearly half in the last nine months. Moreover, a clear divide among workers emerged, with lower-level employees, women, and millennials questioning the need to return to the office at higher rates than their counterparts, despite expressing more concern about mental health.

Conducted between May 28–June 4, the online survey examines plans and opinions on reopening the workplace. More than 3,600 US workers participated, representing a cross-section of people across industries. It is a follow-up to similar surveys conducted in late 2020 and early 2021. Key findings include:  

Workers question the wisdom of returning to the workplace given high productivity.

  • 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 significant increase from the 31 percent who felt that way in January.
  • The lower the employee level, the more they question the need to return to the workplace:
    • Individual contributors: 56 percent.
    • CEOs: 18 percent.
  • Women question the wisdom of returning more than men:
    • Women: 50 percent.
    • Men: 33 percent.
  • Millennials are more likely to question the wisdom of returning than other generations:
    • Millennial: 55 percent.
    • Gen X: 45 percent.
    • Baby Boomer: 36 percent.
  • While exposing family members to COVID-19 or contracting it personally were of greatest concern in September 2020, those concerns dropped by nearly half in June, to 28 and 24 percent, respectively.
  • 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.
  • CEOs, men, and baby boomers were the largest cohorts to have no concerns about returning to the workplace.

Stress/burnout is the top well-being concern among workers, particularly among women, millennials, and individual contributors.

  • Worker level:
    • Individual contributors: 61 percent.
    • CEOs: 30 percent.
  • Gender:
    • Women: 62 percent.
    • Men: 43 percent.
  • Generation:
    • Millennials: 70 percent.
    • Gen X: 59 percent.
    • Baby Boomers: 42 percent.

 “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,” said 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 2 to 3 days remotely.
  • 13 percent will be remote 1 day per week and on-site 4 days.
  • Another 30 percent will be in the office 5 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,” said 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.”

More than one-third of respondents report that their level of engagement has increased.

  • More than one in ten say it has increased significantly.
  • Around half report that their level of engagement stayed the same compared to pre-pandemic. 

Respondents believe their employers have acted on their concerns about return to workplace throughout the last year.

  • 87 percent agree to some degree, with 35 percent agreeing, and 52 percent agreeing strongly.

Comfort returning to the workplace has drastically increased in the last 6 months.

  • Nearly 40 percent of respondents are very comfortable or even want to return, compared to only 17 percent in September 2020.
  • This level of comfort increases based on seniority:
    • CEOs: 66 percent are very comfortable/want to return.
    • Individual contributors: 23 percent.
  • Men are more comfortable returning than women:
    • Men: 49 percent are very comfortable/want to return.
    • Women: 31 percent.
  • Older generations are also more comfortable returning than younger ones:
    • Baby Boomer: 43 percent.
    • Gen X: 38 percent.
    • Millennials: 24 percent.

Two-thirds of workers will be back in the office in the next 3 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.
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