Do Workers Need to Return to the Office After the Coronavirus Threat Subsides?

Two experts debate the issue.

By Carol Cochran and Chuck Bean November 30, 2020
LIKE SAVE
yes

It’s essential for workers to return to the office to improve their mental health and productivity.

Chuck Bean
When the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, many people viewed the necessity of working from home as a silver lining to a horrible situation. But after weeks of isolation, the dream turned into a nightmare for many employees. Companies should allow these workers to return to the office as soon as safely possible.


Not Good for Workers


The negative effects of remote work are evident in the results of a recent Martec Group survey of more than 1,200 employees nationwide. The survey found that a mere 16 percent of workers were thriving—defined as benefiting from working from home.

Overall, the share of employees who said their mental health was good fell to 28 percent from 62 percent since they started working from home. Job satisfaction dropped to 32 percent from 57 percent. Motivation fell to 36 percent from 56 percent.

Moreover, 40 percent of employees said their productivity had declined; only 19 percent said they were more productive at home. This decline is likely impacting deadlines and profits and is a key reason why companies should reopen their offices.

Ending Remote Work

Many companies are recognizing the flaws in current work-from-home arrangements. Leaders of Google and other large corporations have hinted that remote work could be ending soon. Others have begun to require some workers to return to the office.

The tough part is determining who to bring back first. Simply requiring everyone with a certain job title or role to return would be wrong because it doesn’t account for employees’ individual personalities and situations.

Instead, organizations should allow employees who are thriving while working from home to continue to do so (for now) and should bring workers who are struggling back to the office, where they can collaborate and excel.

Who to Bring Back

Martec’s research revealed four distinct employee segments: thriving employees, hopeful employees, discouraged employees and trapped employees. Understanding these groups can help guide back-to-work decisions.

Thriving employees tended to be women in entry-level positions. They also tended to have the most introverted personalities of the four groups. They were happy working at home, thought their company was handling the current situation well and appreciated the extra time they gained by not commuting.

Hopeful employees—mostly women and a mix of entry-level and senior workers—missed the social interaction of the office and found it hard to focus and be productive at home, but they were making it work.

Discouraged employees reported higher stress levels and the biggest decline in mental health. Representing equal numbers of men and women, as well as people ages 25-45, they tended to hold positions at the manager level and above. Employees in this group also were the most likely to be extroverts. Similarly, trapped employees, who generally skewed younger, disliked working from home and were disappointed in how their companies were handling the situation.

When deciding whether to bring workers back, what’s right for one company will not be right for another, and the same goes for employees. The organizations that are able to identify where people fall on the spectrum to help determine who to bring back while deploying a hybrid remote/in-office workforce strategy will be able to maximize productivity and employee satisfaction.

Chuck Bean is a partner with The Martec Group, a market research and consulting firm in Chicago, where he is the head of marketing and business development. He also leads Martec’s Emotion Intelligence practice, which focuses on uncovering the emotions of customers and employees.


no

The worldwide work-from-home experiment brought about by the pandemic has been good for business.

Carol Cochran
The benefits of remote work are so numerous that perhaps the question should be: Why would office workers return to the traditional office?

Recent research shows that remote work results in increased productivity, decreased real estate costs, happier and more engaged employees, greater business continuity during emergencies, a smaller environmental footprint, and access to a larger and more diversified talent pool.

No Turning Back

We have reached a tipping point for remote work. That’s because many employers have come to realize that the worldwide work-from-home experiment brought about by the public health crisis has been good for business.

In a FlexJobs survey of approximately 4,000 people who have been working remotely during the pandemic, 95 percent said their productivity was higher than or the same as before the pandemic. They also reported having fewer distractions, more-efficient meetings and a more comfortable work environment, all of which contribute to higher productivity, satisfaction and engagement.

To some extent, the issue is moot. Many companies have already decided they don’t need workers to return. Facebook, Zillow, Mastercard, Shopify and Twitter are among those that have committed to remote work for the long term.

About 80 percent of CEOs say that, in the future, they expect to have a more widespread remote workforce as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a global survey from PwC. Of those surveyed, 78 percent said they think remote work is “here to stay.” Similarly, a KPMG survey found that 69 percent of large-company CEOs plan to downsize their office space.

Remote Opportunities Rising

Not surprisingly, most remote workers don’t want to return to the office, at least not full time: 65 percent would prefer to work remotely full time post-pandemic, 31 percent would like a combination of remote and in-office work, and just 4 percent want to return to the traditional office full time, according to the FlexJobs survey.

The number of remote job listings on FlexJobs, a jobs site that specializes in remote work, has risen every month since March, despite a slower overall job market. At the same time, more organizations than ever are actively recruiting for remote positions. The number of new companies recruiting remote workers on FlexJobs rose by 10 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and by 53 percent in the third quarter.

Thoughtful Approach Required

To maximize the benefits of remote work, HR leaders need to create formal, written policies regarding worker eligibility and expectations. Companies also must track productivity and job outcomes.

To protect against burnout, HR and managers need to actively help remote workers keep healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. Flexible scheduling can dramatically reduce burnout, since rigid work schedules can magnify conflicting demands between work and family.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to remote work and businesses. Many workers and organizations will thrive in a hybrid situation, where time is split between home and office. But business leaders who take a careful, thoughtful approach can craft a viable and sustainable remote-work program that fits the company’s needs for the long term.  

Carol Cochran is vice president of people and culture at FlexJobs, a jobs site for remote, work-from-home and flexible jobs. She oversees all aspects of human resources, including recruitment, employee development and retention, for the company, whose employees all work remotely.

LIKE SAVE

SHRM HR JOBS

Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Mandating (or Not) the COVID-19 Vaccine

It's time for employers to consider whether they will require employees to get the COVID vaccine.

It's time for employers to consider whether they will require employees to get the COVID vaccine.

LEARN MORE

SPONSOR OFFERS

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.