Returning to Work in 2021

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Do workers want to return to the office post-pandemic? The answer is not a simple one. Demographics play a role with different age groups looking at the return to commuting and the pre-pandemic officer environment with a different filter. The only thing that is common among all workers is that things will have to change. They are not going to be satisfied with returning to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Corporate America is going to have to study the issue and take into account employee moods and demands. These employees have been exposed to remote working for nearly a year. The flexibility of schedule and new work-life balances have been established. These “perks” won’t be given up without serious discussions and concessions from the management team. The Human Resources team has their work cut out for them as employee retention and new recruiting methods will present unique challenges.

Preliminary Statistics from Early Studies

Let’s look at the statistics from several studies that have been completed recently within the pandemic window. We will focus on two of them but understand that there will be more in-depth studies done before the full scope and impact of “returning to normal” is understood.

The first study (Jose Maria Barrero, 2020) carries the title of “Why Working from Home Will Stick.” There will be no attempt to measure bias on the part of the study authors. We will look at the numbers and allow the reader to develop their impressions of what they mean.

  • The study group involved 15,000 American workers
  • The study was conducted in May – October 2020
  • Remote workers performed 50% of all paid hours during the period of the study
  • 25% of all paid hours will continue to be done remotely after the pandemic ends
  • 5% of all paid hours were performed remotely before the pandemic hit
  • Five reasons drive the post-pandemic rise in remote working:
    • Diminished stigmas associated with being a remote worker
    • Better than expected improvements to the work/life balance
    • Investments in physical and human capital to enable working from home
    • Reluctance to return to the “old normal.”
    • Innovative thinking and increased production from remote workers
  • There are implications to be considered as well:
    • High-income workers like the new work/life balance of not being dominated by the job
    • Big city business districts and the office workers’ associated spend will shrink by 5 to 10 percent, causing an economic impact
    • Remote worker productivity increased by 2.4% during the pandemic, lending credence to the fact that pre-pandemic office environments held back worker productivity
    • CO2 emission decrease because fewer automobiles on the road helped with climate change impacts and downtown air quality.
    • Worker mental health improvements were realized by less time spent commuting and exposure to the stress of overcrowded highways.  

Cause and effect are in play with some of these statistics. However, looking at them individually gives a clearer perspective. The second study (JLL Global Research; 2020), titled “Reimagining Human Experience,” is a bit smaller but more diverse in that it includes office workers from ten different countries. The details of the study include:

  • 2033 people
  • An online survey conducted in November 2020

The study’s objective was to demonstrate to companies how to embrace a remote workforce’s new work-life priorities and expectations. This study was inherently biased in pre-determining that the COVID pandemic has driven a new reality that companies must deal with issues that will prevent them from turning back to pre-pandemic normality. There is a new normal on the horizon that is already deep-seated in workers’ minds sent home to work over the past year. Check out the statistics for yourself.

  • 72% want to work from home continuingly for at least two days a week
  • 75% expect that their company will support the work from home option
  • 24% wanted to work exclusively from the office
  • 70% want companies to support working from home individually but have the opportunity to come to the office in teams for a focus/brainstorming session
  • 72% say that work-life balance is more important than salary in the post-pandemic era
  • 74% support a four day work week (remote or office)
  • 50% want to work in a hybrid office/remote scenario
  • 26% never want to work in an office again and go remote

This study goes into many finer points of consideration, but we’ve seen the numbers that can be compared with the first study. It’s interesting to note the similarities in the percentages dedicated to the same purpose.

Analysis and Conclusions

It’s evident in the early returns on the pandemic’s impact on where people prefer to work that 25% of the employees who used to go to the office five days a week pre-pandemic would now opt to work from home permanently.

75% favor a hybrid work model under a varying set of conditions but would prefer to work from home on routine work within the scope of only needing their expertise to go to the office as a team to do more complex tasks.

The overarching driver for most of these options is the shift in work-life balance that the pandemic has enabled. The social experiment has revealed that employees formerly “married to their job” no longer feel that is more important than spending more time with their families under a flexible set of work-life rules. The uptick in employee productivity in a remote work from the home environment has provided evidence that companies can get more quality work out of their employees remotely than being in their office cubicle for eight hours a day or more.

In the post-pandemic world, change is inevitable. The company that wants to remain competitive and attract the best talent will adopt a new work-life posture. What that is, in the final analysis, is yet to be determined. However, the employee is making their ideas known loud and clear.

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