The majority of professional organizations are planning for a return to the workplace by the spring, although much uncertainty remains, according to research from The Conference Board.
The New York City-based think tank found that 40 percent of employers that shifted to remote work at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. in March 2020 are planning to have their workers return to the office by March of this year. However, those plans could change as new COVID-19 cases have continued to rise, said Robin Erickson, principal researcher at The Conference Board and one of the authors of Adapting to the Reimagined Workplace: Human Capital Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, a compilation of multiple surveys and research on organizations’ responses to the coronavirus and their plans on returning to the office. The report shares data on remote work trends, productivity and employee well-being, workforce cost reductions, and plans for returning to the workplace.
The Conference Board surveyed 330 employers and 1,100 workers to gain an understanding of employee readiness to return to the workplace and employer plans for that eventuality.
Most employers say they don’t have a sure plan for who exactly is required to return. The majority (41 percent) believe that returning will be required for some, and voluntary for others. Fifteen percent reported that returning will be voluntary for all, and 11 percent said it would be required for all.
“Organizations should understand that employees who are at high-risk themselves, have high-risk family members, or who have dependent care responsibilities may feel that they have no choice but to quit their jobs if returning to the workplace becomes mandatory,” Erickson said.
Comfort levels differ
Most of the workers surveyed feel “moderately comfortable” (39 percent) or “very comfortable” (17 percent) about returning to the workplace, while 31 percent said they are not comfortable with returning.
That contrasts with 75 percent of HR executives who said they were either moderately or very comfortable coming back to the office, while only 18 percent said they were not. Notably, lower-level employees were the least comfortable returning, and front-line workers and managers felt the most pressure to agree to return, compared with higher-level managers and executives.
“Low-level employees are more likely to feel pressure that they have to return for fear of losing their jobs,” Erickson said. “These employees are also less involved with planning for a return and less informed about the safeguarding measures in place.”
The survey revealed the most frequent actions businesses are taking to safeguard their workers. Purchasing safety equipment like masks, thermometers, contactless entry devices and sanitization devices are the most frequent action taken, followed by creating new social distancing workplace policies like limiting the size of in-person meetings and deep cleaning or disinfecting the workspace for returning workers.
Areas where organizations could improve include implementing safety measures specifically for workers taking public transportation and planning for staggering shifts within the workday to reduce contact. Only 46 percent plan to create staggered timing for business units or workers to re-enter the workplace. And only 67 percent are requiring screening, testing or temperature checks, which could cause some workers concern.
The Conference Board found that the top three concerns about returning to the workplace are the risk of contracting COVID-19 (51 percent); the risk of exposing family members to the virus (49 percent); and the lack of a safe, effective available vaccine (40 percent).
A survey of 5,858 working adults by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that 64 percent of workers would feel uncomfortable returning to the office. For those who are choosing to work from home even though their workplace is available to them, majorities cite a preference for working from home (60 percent) and concern over being exposed to the coronavirus (57 percent) as major reasons for this.
Thirty percent of respondents in The Conference Board survey said they have “little faith” in their co-workers to follow proper health and safety protocols when returning to work.
“I’m hearing that employees are worried that their colleagues won’t wear masks or adhere to other safety guidelines while at work,” Erickson said. “Employers need to make sure that all employees are adhering to the safety protocols in the office.”
Get your workers’ input
The only way to know whether your employees feel comfortable returning to the worksite is to ask them. About 59 percent of companies have surveyed their workers about their readiness and comfort in returning.
“In most surveys, 59 percent would be pretty good. But in this case, it is not,” Erickson said. “In the midst of a health pandemic and financial crisis, creeping anxiety and falling levels of employee well-being, 59 percent is not enough.”
She added that businesses that surveyed their workers put in 20 percent to 40 percent more safeguards.
“Surveying employee intentions should be done anonymously,” Erickson cautioned, “so employees don’t feel that they will be retaliated against if they don’t want to return.”
Notably, a significant percentage of surveyed remote workers question the wisdom of returning to the office at all after proving that high productivity could be maintained during their time at home.
“More than half [54 percent] of employed adults who say that their job responsibilities can mostly be done from home say that, if they had a choice, they’d want to work from home all or most of the time when the coronavirus outbreak is over,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew Research Center. “A third say they’d want to work from home some of the time, while just 11 percent say they’d want to do this rarely or never. Some 46 percent of those who rarely or never teleworked before the coronavirus outbreak say they’d want to work from home all or most of the time when the pandemic is over.”
The COVID-19 vaccination drive is now underway, and HR leaders surveyed by Gartner predict that about 50 percent of the workforce will want to return to the workplace at least part time once a vaccine is made widely available.
Sixty percent of 116 HR leaders surveyed said they will encourage but not require employees to get vaccinated. Sixty percent of respondents reported they will provide resources to employees on where and how to get vaccinated, and 44 percent said they plan to cover or subsidize the costs of the vaccine for employees.
“With a COVID-19 vaccine rollout approaching, HR leaders are now faced with an onslaught of questions, including if they can or should require employees to be vaccinated, what the employer’s responsibility is in helping employees and their families get vaccinated, and how the release of vaccines impacts their return-to-the-workplace strategy,” said Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice.
Sixty-two percent of HR leaders reported that they are planning to continue all safety measures they have put in place once a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Nearly one-third of respondents noted they would no longer require masks in the workplace nor enforce social distancing in high-traffic areas.
“Right now, organizations are considering different policies for employees who receive the vaccine and those who do not,” Joyce said. “What is most critical is that HR leaders are making these decisions with the expectation that they may need to course correct as we learn more.”