Published Apr 02, 2021
Ron Ruffinott, VP, Head of Research Solution
The past year disrupted companies across the globe. Thriving, bustling workplaces became home offices overnight. With a year of ongoing and unpredictable events, American sentiment and behaviors evolved at a pace unmatched by any other time in history, reinforcing the value of real-time research.
By and large, the American workforce demonstrated incredible resilience and adjusted to a new work landscape. But with vaccinations on the rise and a call for clarity in an uncertain time, organizations have had to make bold decisions about the future of the workplace. We have seen an interesting mix: some companies announced they will now maintain a ‘work from anywhere’ policy indefinitely. Some have taken every precaution to ensure their employees are already safely back in the office. And others have adopted a hybrid model or staff rotations in which employees work in the office some number of days during the week.
As business leaders grapple with the best solution for their employees’ wellbeing, company culture and collaboration, and their long-term approach to work models, we surveyed workers to understand how they feel and what they want. Being able to instantly engage with the very lifeblood of the American workforce has never been more important and sheds new light on the future of work from the perspective of those doing the work. After all, to make the best decisions for your workforce, you must first develop a strategy built on real-time intelligence about their priorities, concerns, and expectations.
Business leaders know that an engaged workforce is an integral part of any successful organization. And a concerningly high two-thirds (66%) of workers feeling disconnected, companies must devote significant effort to understand the root of this disconnect and how to create a positive and effective culture among a dispersed staff.
Above all, workers miss the collaborative and social aspects of the office.
Among the top activities that workers report they miss are in-person sharing sessions (25%) and the atmosphere (23%) of the office. Socialization unrelated to work is another driving factor, as 18% report, they miss small talk in between work tasks. It’s also clear that motivation and team culture are top of mind for workers, with 16% reporting they miss the inspiration and energy a workplace provides and 12% missing in-person team building.
Motivation and inspiration are the main drivers for those who do favor the workplace: those who prefer working in an office compared to working from home are twice as likely to cite motivation and inspiration as the top aspects they miss about the office (25% vs. 10%).
While a small number of workers (19%) have already returned to the office, most have not. But many expect to in the imminent future, with over half (58%) recently discussing a return date with their employers. Almost one-third of workers predict they’ll return to the office to some degree by this summer.
With a return to the office on the horizon, leaders must carefully consider the safety measures employees expect. When asked what it will take for them to feel comfortable returning to the office work environment in any capacity, vaccinations are the baseline standard. Almost two-thirds (63%) would only return to the office if they and their coworkers have been vaccinated. Employees will also expect social distancing (59%) and regular COVID-19 testing (49%), in addition to increased cleaning and sanitation efforts. In turn, most workers (83%) are willing to get vaccinated if their employees mandate it for the return to office work, and a strong majority (78%) feel everyone returning to the workplace should receive the vaccine. Until the vaccine is mandatory, 80% of respondents believe that employers should enforce regular testing to ensure workplace safety.
Though workers miss aspects of the office, the overwhelming majority feel the future of work will include a hybrid model. A staggering 90% of respondents believe a hybrid work model, in which employees work some days in the office and some days from home, is best. While there is an appetite to return to the office in some capacity, a return to a full work week in the office is strikingly unpopular. Almost half (46%) want to return to the workplace part-time, but of those willing to go into the office, only 27% want to do so five days a week.
Not only do employees predict this hybrid model will take hold– they will expect it and demand it. In fact, more than half (51%) will only consider returning to the office if their employer offers a hybrid working model. Business leaders must take close note that flexibility will now play an integral role in employee retention and talent recruitment. The workforce has made its preference clear: a flexible, hybrid model of work is the future, and they are willing to leave if employers don’t offer it. More than half of workers (58%) will look for a different job now if their employer mandate they return to the office. What’s more, 40% of employees would consider leaving their job if employers demand they return to the office full time after the pandemic ends. Without question, a mandatory five-day return to office will likely mean lost talent for many businesses.
Interestingly, sentiments are nowhere near-universal for various identity groups. For example, 30% of women report they are eager to return to the office full time, while almost double (58%) the amount of men report they are ready and willing to do the same. While the majority of women seem to look forward to returning to the office part-time (57%), almost one in seven (13%) don’t want to return at all. Similarly, young workers are more eager to return to the office than older employees, largely to collaborate with colleagues. Workers aged 18-34 report they miss sharing ideas in person with their team (30%) in comparison to only 5% of workers aged 55 and over.
With men more eager to return while women prefer a hybrid working model, and young employees missing in-person collaboration more than older workers, business leaders will need to closely examine the unique needs of their team demographics and identify appropriate solutions.
Following a year of disruptions, makeshift home offices, and countless other adjustments, work-life balance is in the spotlight more than ever – but the sentiment is mixed. There’s no question that the conditions of this past year impacted work-life balance, but there’s a strong divide between positive and negative perspectives. While 46% report they have a better balance now working remotely or in a hybrid model, almost one-third (30%) say they work much longer hours from home.
The divergent sentiment highlights an important question: are people working from home, or living at work? The answer appears to be the former, as better work-life balance seems to be the primary driver for those who report home office preference. Those who prefer to work from home are much more likely to cite better balance (62%) compared to those who prefer the workplace (24%).
After a year of travel restrictions, it’s no surprise Americans are eager to return to travel – and business travel is no exception. A full 82% of respondents report they miss business travel and prefer in-person meetings to virtual meetings. And they have high hopes to jet-set soon. While only 16% are currently back to traveling, 42% expect to be back to business travel at some level by this summer.
Employers take heed – flexibility is essential
You can’t have a future workforce if you lose your employees. Keeping them engaged and satisfied is no small feat. But for organizations across the country, flexibility will be paramount. Though some are eager to return to the office and many feel disconnected, it’s apparent that an undeniable amount of the workforce desires a hybrid working model, strong safety precautions, and a more flexible approach to work. And these expectations will affect talent retention and recruitment, as many will look elsewhere if companies don’t meet their expectations.
Employers who lean on real-time insights and an earnest effort to understand how workers truly feel will find that today’s workforce has clearly defined and different expectations than the workforce of yesteryear. And those that look to innovative, technology-led research to inform their work models and company culture strategies will retain employees, attract new talent and emerge as the leading organizations of tomorrow.