Returning to the office: What employees really want

Date Published : Oct-27-2021

Written By : Kim Brown

The corporate world is busy making plans and projections for 2022 to regain some stability and predictability. Yet, companies still aren’t entirely certain where and how they will be working in a few months. Do staff want to be in the office full-time, or should hybrid work environments remain? New studies show that leaders and decision-makers will have to move forward without clear answers.


Some employees expect to return full time. But that doesn’t mean they want to     

The Harris Poll asked 1,088 employed Americans about their current work situations and how they feel about returning to the office five days a week. 54% of participants who worked in a corporate setting stated that they had already returned to the office full-time. However, 51% of the respondents who went into an office prior to the pandemic said they did not want to go back in five days a week.

The survey found 48% of participants who were required to work from home due to the pandemic are expected to return to a pre-pandemic routine, while 27% said their employer currently requires them to return to the office for just part of the week.

When it comes to what employees want, 17% would like their employer to give them a hybrid or flexible work option, while 13% would like their employer to require all employees to work mostly remotely. Surprisingly, 41% said they want their employer to require all employees to return to the office full-time. We will explore why this might be momentarily.

40% of women said they wanted to return to the office full-time, compared to 51% of men. This is not surprising considering that women are often expected to take care of more non-work responsibilities in addition to professional obligations.


Global report shows disconnect between employers and staff  

The Future Forum Pulse, a global study released by the Future Forum, asked knowledge workers about future work expectations. The results show that executives are eager to return to the office, and they believe (or assume) their team members feel the same way. According to the report, executives who had to work remotely are nearly three times more likely than employees to prefer returning to the office full-time.

Conversely, 76% of employees have no desire to commute five days a week and want more flexibility where they work, while 93% want more flexibility when they work. Over half of the employees surveyed say they are prepared to find a new job if necessary.

The disconnect is rooted in a difference in experiences. Even though they may be given more substantial responsibilities, executives are generally happier because they are satisfied with their work environment. They don’t have to operate under someone else’s rules and can enjoy more flexibility when they need it. Employees may not have the opportunity to help shape policies and procedures, and may feel like they have to work under rigid conditions. 


What do people miss about the office?

Here’s one positive that companies can take away from these reports – the majority of employees see the value of coming into the office some of the time. A small minority would work from home full-time if given the option, but more people like interacting and working with colleagues in person. They also like having workspaces that don’t double as dinner tables or bedrooms.  


Employers must provide a safe working environment

Regardless of the strategy that employers take in the coming weeks and months, they must prioritize employee health and safety. There is no simple solution, and there is no way to make every person happy. Leaders are likely to find that the bulk of their employers will support proof of vaccination upon returning to the office. They may also respond positively to mask mandates and incentives for vaccinated employees.

Staff cannot be expected to come into a cramped, stale office. They will start looking for other jobs if they are asked to work in unreasonable conditions. So, if your office is too small for your entire team, you will need to look at how to optimize your space for comfort and safety.

To ensure a smoother transition from completely remote to hybrid or something more, employers and team leads are encouraged to implement simple desk booking/hoteling systems. This will give staff the flexibility to book a designated spot on the days that are best for them, and management doesn’t have to spend time making schedules. Most cloud-based software systems will have a mobile app that will let employees book spaces from anywhere.    


Employers are strongly encouraged to keep some flexibility in the workplace

Flexibility now ranks second only to compensation when it comes to employees and job satisfaction. As stated before, people are ready to quit if work conditions feel too oppressive or uncompromising.

It’s important to note that it may not be enough to say to your staff that they have permission to work from home part-time. Returning to that stat about people wanting their employers to enforce a “return full-time” policy, the sentiment may suggest that employees don’t feel like they can take advantage of flexible work without some sort of penalty.   

In 2020, Deloitte surveyed 1,000 U.S. white-collar workers about workplace flexibility. 94% of respondents said they want more workplace flexibility. They expressed a desire for remote work options and flexible work hours. But, a staggering 80% of those same participants also said a traditional work setting was important if they wanted to continue advancing. 30% said that due to the potential negative consequences of working from home, they would not take advantage of flexible work options, even if they were available.

What this means is that executives need to lead by example. They should work from home at least one day a week to show staff that it’s okay to work remotely, and encourage team leads to promote new policies.


Advice for leaders

The corporate world is in a strange, transitional place right now, and most of us aren’t all that comfortable with change. The bad news is that there are multiple paths forward, and not all of them are great. The good news is there is ample opportunity to create healthier, more sustainable work conditions for employees.

Instead of reverting back to the status quo, take some time to consider viable options, and gather employee feedback before making any final decisions. 


Gather Input

The dramatic divide between executive and employee preferences will only get bigger if left alone. But, your company doesn’t have to be like this. Instead of doing all of your post-pandemic planning by yourself or with other executives, have discussions with small groups of employees, or send out surveys that can be answered anonymously.


Provide options

If companies want to attract and retain top talent (all of them do), they need to recognize the disconnects between employers and workers, and take concrete steps to bridge the gap. We already know that flexibility is highly desired. See what can be done to give team members more options.


Don’t make assumptions

Don’t assume your employees feel the same way about work as you do. Your staff may love their jobs, but they don’t love long commutes or rigid work schedules. We’ve all proven that we can work from home and still be productive. If you can’t trust your team to continue doing that on a part-time basis, then there may be some more significant company issues that need to be addressed.