As vaccines roll out, case numbers come down, and states lift restrictions, one of the biggest questions organizations are asking is, How do we go about opening up after a year-long global pandemic? The big question for employees as well is, Will I feel safe going back to work — and do I even want to?
Workplaces are busy putting into place a plan for reopening. This includes installing new air filtration systems, thinking through technological innovations like touchless entry and digital signage, and initiating pre-entry wellness checks and social distancing measures in order to keep a safe office.
It also means welcoming employees back to the workplace, communicating reopening plans, and prioritizing their health and wellness.
But are employees looking forward to getting back to work? Do they miss the collaboration of being around colleagues, feeling part of a team and mission, and the office perks? Or have they gotten used to the freedom, lack of commute, and more free time from working remotely?
We wanted to know how employees are feeling about getting back into the workplace, what they’re looking forward to the most, and what they’re concerned about as offices reopen.
On June 9, 2021, we surveyed 600 US workers who were employed full time, either salaried or hourly, and who worked in an office, had to go remote, and had recently returned.
After polling employees returning to their offices, we found the following insights:
64% are happy about returning to the workplace. Almost two-thirds of employees are looking forward to getting back to in-person work.
They feared loss of productivity when they went remote. With 51% reporting that they feel more productive now that they’ve returned to work, they did experience a loss of productivity working remotely.
46% refused to return to in-person work. 13% were fired and 15% quit, but 72% worked out a plan with their employer for accommodations or hybrid.
51% are required to be vaccinated as part of the return to the workplace. Additionally, 42% need to wear a mask at all times at work.
Respondents missed socializing with coworkers the most. They also missed collaborating with coworkers and having in-person meetings, as well as the lack of distractions they had at home.
66% say their employer has prioritized their health and safety well. Additionally, 49% believe their office did a great job in preparing the technology and tools needed to return.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Profile of Who We Surveyed
On June 9, 2021, we surveyed 600 US workers who were employed full time, either salaried or hourly, and worked in an office, had to go remote, but have recently returned. 57% are male and 43% are female. The majority of respondents (41.5%) are between the ages of 35 and 44. 21.7% are between the ages of 25 and 34, and 14.8% are younger than 24; 22% are over the age of 45.
They work for various-sized companies
The majority of our respondents (40.3%) work in a medium-sized company of between 100 and 999 employees, with 19% working at a small business of one to 100 employees. 23% work at a large business of 1,000 to 10,000 employees, and 17.7% work at a major corporation of over 10,000 employees.
They work in technology, finance, healthcare, and other industries
The majority of our respondents work in technology (28.2%), followed by finance (10.2%), healthcare (9.2%), and other industries.
They’re in various roles, with more in senior-level positions
Our respondents are somewhat evenly split in their roles at work, with 39% in senior-level positions, 36.8% in mid-level positions, and 24.2% in entry-level positions.
While our respondents are from different industries, different sized companies, and varying roles, the commonality is that they work in an office that shut down during the pandemic, forcing them to go remote. That office is now reopening, and they’re facing the return to in-person work.
Part 2: Responses to Working from Home and Returning to the Office
When offices shut down in March 2020, no one knew what to expect as the work world went remote. Would it be successful or simply a Band-Aid until everyone could get back to the office? Would productivity plummet? Would teams have the tools to continue to collaborate? Would anyone want to go back once they could? We asked our respondents to detail their fears and highlights from a year working remotely.
The primary benefit of working from home is more freedom
There were a number of benefits of working remotely, but the majority of our respondents (22.8%) said that the increased freedom they got working remotely was the biggest benefit. 14.2% enjoyed better work/life balance, and 12.2% found benefit in having no commute. 10.5% found the greatest benefit being increased productivity.
Other benefits included more time with family, or spending time on other projects or hobbies (9.7%), overall improved well-being (7.5%), no dress code (6.7%), more autonomy (5.8%), and less distractions (5%). 5.7% found no benefit from working remotely.
The biggest fear in working from home was a loss of productivity
The move to remote happened quickly for many, and we wanted to know what employees who were asked to work from home feared the most with the change. The majority (23.7%) were concerned that their productivity would go down. 14% feared losing their job; similarly, 10.5% were afraid their hours would be cut. 13% were worried about losing connection with their co-workers. 10.8% were concerned about not having the right tools or resources to do their job from home, like VPN or fast wifi.
Other concerns included losing connection with customers or clients (9.7%), loss of momentum on projects (9.5%), and that they simply wouldn’t know what was required of them if they weren’t in an office (8.8%).
64% feel happy about returning to the office
In terms of returning, how are our respondents feeling? 41.2% report being very happy to return to the workplace, with 23% feeling somewhat happy to return. 13.2% are feeling neutral about the return, and 22.6% report feeling somewhat unhappy or very unhappy to return. We also found that happiness to return extended across job roles, sectors, and business sizes.
Offices are providing digital pre-entry wellness checks, new air filtration systems, and touchless entry
Bringing employees back into the office will require new technology to make it happen. Our respondents reported that their workplaces are utilizing a lot of new technology, including:
- digital pre-entry wellness checks (47.8%)
- new air filtration systems (42.5%)
- touchless entry (41.5%)
- desk and conference room reservation systems (39.2%)
- digital signage (36.5%)
11.5% reported that they are not aware their workplaces have added any new technology to facilitate the office return.
49% believe their office did a great job in preparing the technology and tools to return
Returning to the office is dependent on comfort level. Nearly half of our respondents (48.7%) say their employer has done a great job of providing the technology and tools needed to make them feel comfortable to return to the office. 24.8% believe their office did an okay job. 15.3% say their employer did not do a good job of making them feel comfortable, and 11.2% say their office did a very bad job of it.
Additionally, those who felt their employer did a great job making them feel comfortable to return were from the technology sector, and those who felt their employer did the worst were from retail.
When the pandemic forced offices to shut down and everyone to go remote, our respondents were concerned: concerned that their productivity would go down, that they would lose connection with their coworkers, and even that their hours would be cut or they would be fired. After a year at home, many found that they enjoyed the freedom and autonomy it brought, as well as the extra time it gave them to spend with family or on other projects. Still, two-thirds are looking forward to returning to the office, and will be met with new technology that will keep their health and safety in mind when they do.
Part 3: Returning to the Office
The question isn’t just if employers have constructed a return to work plan and are ready to open up their offices again. It’s also if employees are prepared to return to the office? Will everyone be willing, or will there be resistance? We wanted to know how enthusiastic our respondents were to return, or if they wanted to continue working remotely.
60% of employers presented a documented Return to Office Plan
Over half of our respondents (59.7%) say that their workplace provided them with a plan detailing how everyone would return to work, health and safety measures, and more considerations. 19.5% say their office did not provide one, and 20.8% either don’t know if their office did, or are not aware of it.
Respondents who said their employer did provide a plan work in the technology sector; those who said no work in the service or retail industry.
44% said it was mandatory to return full-time to the office
As they looked at reopening, a big question workplaces needed to ask was whether they would bring teams back from remote work, and whether an in-office presence would be required. 44.3% of our respondents report that their workplace made it mandatory to come back to the office. 26.8% report that while their employer made it mandatory to return, they’re allowing employees to work hybrid or choose work from home days. 16.7% report that their employer left it up to them on whether they wanted to return to continue remotely. For 12.2%, they haven’t heard yet.
46% said they refused to return to in-person work
Considering the benefits of remote work, we wanted to know if there were employees who refused to return to the office if they were required to. 45.7% — nearly half of our respondents — said that they did initially refuse to return to work, and wanted to stay remote. 54.3% said they did not.
The majority of those who refused to return were senior-level employees working in medium-sized companies in the tech space.
After refusing, 13% were fired and 15% quit — but 72% worked out a plan with their employer
For those who wanted to remain remote, and refused to return to the office, what happened? Over half (53.3%) report that their employer made accommodations for them to continue working at home, and 19% report negotiating a hybrid schedule with their employer. However, 15% quit when they were told it was non-negotiable, and 12.8% were fired.
Of those fired, half were senior-level employees, most worked at major corporations, and those fired spanned across industries, including tech, healthcare, education, and restaurants. Those who quit were majority mid-level and senior-level across all industries, including technology and education, and most worked at small businesses.
They didn’t want to return because of the freedom and extra time remote work gave them
Considering we’ve already seen the benefits of working remotely, we wanted to get some further insight into why they did not want to return to the office. Overwhelmingly, the reason was because they enjoyed the freedom and autonomy of working from home (40.2%). 20.1% enjoyed the extra time they spent with family, or on other projects. 10.2% didn’t want to return because they felt their employer was putting their health at risk by asking them to go back. 9.9% didn’t want to return because their expectations of a workplace changed. 9.1% say they were more productive at home. 10.6% cited other reasons.
48% also knew coworkers who also refused to return
Finally, did our respondents know other coworkers who refused to return? 48.3% said yes, they did. 32.2% did not. 19.5% weren’t sure.
When it came to returning to work, we found that only 60% of workplaces had offered documentation explaining the work plan, health and safety protocols, and policies around returning — meaning 40% weren’t getting clear guidance on their reopening workplace.
While the majority of those who didn’t want to return cited the freedom, autonomy, and time they got while working remotely, 10.2% did note that they didn’t want to return because they felt their employer was putting their health at risk — which should be a big concern.
We found that nearly half refused to return to the workplace. While some were fired and some quit, 72% were able to work out a plan with their employer, whether it be accommodations to continue to work remotely, or a hybrid schedule. Both employers and employees will need to have flexibility and resilience at the forefront as offices reopen.
Part 4: Protocols for Back to Work
Returning to the office isn’t going to look the same as before, and keeping everyone safe and healthy, as well as productive, will be the immediate challenge. We wanted to know what policies employers are putting in place, and how employees are feeling now that they’ve returned in person.
51% said their employer is requiring vaccination as part of the return to the office
Another big question is whether employers will require their employees to be vaccinated before returning to work. Half of our respondents (51.3%) report that their workplace has required vaccinations for their in-office employees.. 31.2% report that their employers are not requiring vaccination. 17.5% either haven’t heard yet, or are not clear on the protocol.
42% have to wear a mask at all times at work
Similarly, we wanted to know if employers were requiring masks in the office (knowing, of course, that local ordinances around masking differ across the country). 42.2% report that they have been asked to wear a mask at all times in the office. 22.2% say they have to when moving throughout the office, but not when at their desk. 13.3% say that no one is required to wear a mask. 10.8% report that only unvaccinated workers have to wear a mask. Finally, 11.5% don’t know or aren’t clear on the protocol.
66% say their employer has done well with prioritizing their health and safety
Earlier we asked about feelings regarding the technology and tools for returning workers. Now, we wanted to know how respondents felt overall about how their employer is prioritizing their health and safety. 45.8% report that their employer has done very well in keeping health and safety at the forefront, with 20% saying their employer has done somewhat well. 11.2% are neutral. Finally, 12.5% believe their employer has done somewhat poorly, and 10.5% believe they’ve done very poorly.
Over half of workers say they are more productive since returning to the office
Has returning to the office had an impact on productivity? As it turns out, being in the office again has caused an increase in productivity, according to 51.3% of our respondents. 24.7% report that their productivity has stayed the same as working remotely. 24% have reported a decrease in productivity from when they worked remotely.
They missed socializing and collaborating with coworkers the most
Now that they’re returning to the office, what did they find they missed the most? After a year of social distancing, it’s no wonder that our respondents said that socializing with their coworkers was the thing they missed the most (23.7%). They also missed collaborating with their coworkers (16%), in-person meetings (10.5%), and working without personal distractions (10.2%). They also missed having office resources like IT support readily available (9.5%), feeling part of a mission (8%), working with or serving customers or clients (7.5%), office perks (7.5%), and feeling part of a team (7.2%).
Two-thirds of our respondents believe that their employer has done well with prioritizing employee health and safety as they reopen the office — yet why isn’t this number 100%? Reasons could be not having the tools and technology in place, examples of which we saw above with pre-entry wellness checks, touchless entry, air filtration systems, and more.
Still, now that they’re back in the office, respondents say they missed socializing and collaborating with their coworkers the most. They also missed in-person meetings and being able to work without the distractions of home. And 51% report being more productive now that they’re back.
Part 5: Future of the Workplace
To help better understand what the future of the post-COVID workplace will look like, over the past two months we’ve interviewed over 30 people for our Workplace of the Future Series. Below are a collection of the top responses we received for the question:
What will the workplace of the future look like?
“The workplace for the future will be a combination between remote teams and in-person teams. Both will need to interact with each other. This is where the last-minute meeting room bookings come in. Hiring people who work within a different city, state, or country will keep on becoming more ‘normal’. Companies have learned that remote workers can be just as efficient as teams who come together within the office every single day. Next to that, companies will need to keep providing their employees with the possibility to work wherever each individual professional feels comfortable. The workplace of the future consists of workers who are physically present within a meeting, while others join online.” – Yordi Smit, Sales Manager at spacehuntr
“Employees need to feel a sense of belonging to be motivated to drive organizational performance. Organizations face the challenge to create a sense of belonging. The most effective way is to recognize individuals’ contributions. When people appreciate how their contributions play a vital part in advancing organizational goals they will become more engaged and motivated. Organizations that foster a strong culture will be rewarded by improved performance.
Organizations need to prioritize employee wellness. This entails designing well-being into the work itself. Technology can be used to promote connectivity, increase employee autonomy and optimize flexible scheduling. Chronic workplace stress is an enduring issue that can lead to burnout, negatively affecting employee retention. As employees work from home they face the danger of not having anywhere to escape to if they feel stressed. Organizations that invest in wellness will find that there will be less need to remedy workplace dysfunction.” – Arthur Iinuma, President of ISBX
“I believe that the workplace of the future will serve as more of a hub in which employees and managers meet to discuss important projects, upskill through training sessions, socialize to maintain team cohesion, and interact with current or future clients. These types of workspaces can already be found in a number of locations, with large-scale coworking spaces providing great facilities and extras, such as meeting rooms, on an à la carte basis. I also expect to see some businesses shift to a totally remote model, ditching physical spaces in favour of video calls and day-to-day operations that are organized purely through project management platforms such as Basecamp.” – Teresha Aird, Founder & CMO at Offices.net
“The future of the workplace will look largely like remote work, or a hybrid-work model. Since covid is still present, businesses will still continue with their safety protocols and procedures, and encourage or require remote work for their employees. We are even seeing companies already allowing their employees to choose between remote or in-office work. This leads to the next point. Employees will also expect to be more demanding in receiving greater workplace flexibility in terms of their schedule and where they want to work. Because remote work enables employees to ultimately work anywhere in the world (as long as they have an Internet connection), employers will have to adapt to their employees’ changing needs.” – Pavel Stepanov, CEO of Virtudesk
“The future of the workplace will be a mix of in-office and remote workers. Now that people understand that not everyone is needed in the office, more and more companies will have a hybrid set-up. This allows companies to widen their search for employees even beyond the country they are based in, giving them more options to choose the best fit candidate for their role. This is also cost-effective as businesses won’t need big office space to accommodate all their employees. It also provides job seekers the opportunity to look for companies beyond the current area they live in, giving everyone a chance to find the perfect job for them. “ – Dave Herman, President of General Indemnity Group and EZ Surety Bonds
“The workplace of the future will be different, but not as different as we tend to think. What we do will remain, for the most part, the same. How we do it will change. I see a lot of flexibility in the future, with more people working remotely. Most of all, the future should mean a better marriage between work and personal lives.
This is thanks in part to all the technology that has made our working lives so much easier during these past months, but also thanks to a continually improving focus on the workforce’s wellbeing. After all, we cannot possibly think about building a strong future on a broken workforce.” – Zoë Morris, President of Frank Recruitment Group and Mason Frank International
“In general, workspaces will be more flexible and collaborative. These “on-demand” or “hotel” spaces I mentioned have become very popular. They allow employees to move around the office individually or in groups – they’re no longer necessarily tied to one desk, especially if they’re working on a hybrid schedule.
That being said, many will no longer be tied to an office at all. Remote work and meetings with people from all over will become commonplace – it’s not going to go away now that we’ve seen the possibilities and efficiencies that collaborative technology has opened up.” – Ginny Caldwell, Director of Interior Design, Southeast Venture
“I think the changes we are seeing to the workplace are just the beginning.
Over the next couple of years, I expect. 80-90% of companies will adopt a hybrid workplace where employees have some level of flexibility in choosing when they work at the office or at home.
I expect that in 3-5 years, we will begin to see virtual reality offices, where employees can work from the office just by putting on a VR headset.” – Reid Hiatt, Founder and CEO of Tactic
“It is difficult to say if remote working will completely be over even after COVID-19 has completely been eradicated. Businesses have realized the potential that remote employees can bring to the table due to their increased productivity. We can expect bigger companies to form some sort of hybrid work model, where proper remote work strategies and policies will have to be implemented.These hybrid models would be different for each company and it would be a challenge for them to figure it out. Another thing we may expect is the increased popularity of remote freelancers and contract workers over permanent employees.” – Jeremy Ellis, co-founder & chief-innovator at LaunchPad
“There will be fewer cubes, and more social spaces and collaborative spaces, as well as private quiet rooms. Remote working tools, including Zoom, may be used to keep in-office and WFH employees on an equal footing.
Affinity groups for seating or in extra rooms will help foster attachment and engagement. Affinity groups are non-work related, such as people who like plants, or beer making, or knitting. Encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work will benefit the company with more engaged and happier workers.” – Leslie Saul, President of Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc
There’s no historical precedent in recent times for reopening offices after a global pandemic shut them down for a year and forced millions of workers to go remote. Organizations are asking, What kind of technology do we have in place to help the transition? What policies do we enforce? Where should we stand on requiring vaccinations? How can we ensure that our employees feel safe and comfortable to return — and what do we do if they don’t want to?
Two things are clear: Workplaces can’t just simply reopen and go back to the way they were pre-pandemic. Also, employers must ensure that their employees feel comfortable to return. What we found is that while employees did enjoy many aspects of working remotely, they’re happy to get back to work, happy to see their coworkers, and happy to increase their productivity.
It’s time for offices to reopen, but employers and employees have to go about it smartly and consciously.