Returning to Work

After the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has not only impacted the way we live, but also the way we work. Due to the importance of social distancing, the percentage of remote workers has skyrocketed. Just under a third of the workforce used their home as an office in March of 2020, and in May of 2020, nearly 7 in 10 employees were working remotely.

While some large companies decided to allow employees to work remotely for the long term, is this the standard across the country? How many employees have already returned to work, and how do they and their employers feel about it?

We surveyed over 1,000 professionals to gauge the workforce's current state and the sentiments attached to these changing times. Keep reading to see what employers and employees across the country had to say.

Rate of Return

During the early stages of the pandemic, companies faced many restrictions, limiting their workforce and sending the majority – if not all – of their employees home. However, with the majority of states now under minor restrictions, some companies are opening their doors again and resuming business. Perhaps due to these changed laws, 67.4% of employees have reported returning to on-site work, while 24% of employers say they intend to bring their workforce back in January 2021.

Regardless of restrictions, employers seem to be taking their employees' opinions into consideration. Eighty-six percent of employers said they are letting their employees decide when they return to on-site work, and the majority support strategies that may keep their employees safer and healthier. While only 16% of employers plan on indefinite remote work, 67.4% support the strategy. Similarly, 66.8% and 64.3% of employers said they support a change in working hours and implementing a dispersed (hybrid) workforce, respectively.

PPE and Policies

For those choosing to have employees return to on-site work, the CDC offers suggestions for how employers can help protect their employees and slow the spread of COVID-19 with personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing techniques.

A large percentage of employers (83%) reported working with outside resources to conduct on-site assessments and benchmarking to prepare for reentry. These findings indicate that many employers realized they need assistance from others to help reopen. Let's take a look at what steps employers have taken to improve the workplace for their employees.

Forty-six percent of employers said they purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) for their employees, while 27.5% said they bought PPE for themselves and their company's employees. Since it appears that some employers are providing PPE to employees, it is likely that policies mandating masks would also be put into place. The survey reported that 63.5% of organizations who had returned to work enforced policies that require employees to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking. On the other hand, 55.1% required employees to wear masks only when interacting with clients and 44.6% required masks only when in meetings.

However, maintaining workplace safety doesn't stop at wearing a face covering. Over half of management reported their company adding hand-sanitizing stations and frequently disinfecting the workplace. Nearly 48% also said their company socially distanced employees, while 45% allowed flexible hours and schedules.

Employers may have or want to consider restricting access to meetings and conference rooms, common areas, and even bathrooms, as these are the top areas for which they expressed the most significant concern of risk of exposure.

Eager for the Office

Remote work has many benefits for both employers and employees, but when remote work is paired with social distancing, many professionals report missing their workplaces – 56% of surveyed employees said they are looking forward to returning to on-site work.

As for their reasoning, 55.4% said they're looking forward to seeing their co-workers, while 42.5% and 37.3% said it's their personal workspace and work-life balance they are missing most, respectively. Surprisingly, the stir-crazy symptoms of merging home and office even have people missing the simple luxuries of an on-site workspace: Nearly 27% of employees reported being eager for office supplies when returning to the workplace.

Workplace Preference

Despite the lack of co-workers, personal workspace, and office supplies, over half of professionals working from home prefer to continue working remotely rather than return to the workplace. In fact, 51.2% would prefer it so much they would sacrifice vacation days to keep the new normal of remote work. However, while some companies are making permanent changes to their remote working policies, many employees may eventually be called back to the office. There may not be a specific date yet, but 22% of employees believed that January 2021 would be the right time to return.

Whenever, and if ever, employees return to working on-site, employers will need to provide their staff with adequate protection and precautions. If they don't, 77% of employees stand prepared to speak up.

Remotely Different Opinions

With employers and employees weighing the pros and cons of remote work, how do the sentiments on each side of the business world differ? Both employers and employees reported flexible working hours as a top remote work benefit, while employers were more likely than employees to cite better work-life balance. On the other hand, avoiding the commute by working from home was a top benefit for 60.7% of employees, compared to just 38.1% of employers.

In terms of downsides, poor internet connections and a lack of office supplies were the top pain points for employers, while employees mostly struggled with missing face-to-face interactions and lack of team connection. Employees were also significantly more likely to report feeling isolated as a pain point of remote work than employers – a downside likely contributing to the growing remote work burnout throughout the pandemic.

Protection While You Work

Ready or not, many Americans are being brought back into the office. But employees returning to on-site workspaces will quickly realize it looks much different than the office environment they left. Employers and employees seem to agree policies mandating masks, the addition of hand-sanitizing stations, and restricted access to common areas are among the precautions necessary for a safer return.

At Office Depot, helping employers and their employees as they prepare for the new working environment is a top priority. The company can help with the transition back to on-site work with products and services like PPE to help stop the spread of germs, signage to help encourage social distancing, cleaning supplies to disinfect workspaces, workspace design and more. For those with remote or distributed workforces, Office Depot offers other essentials including technology and collaboration tools as well as furniture to help with employee productivity and efficiency.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we surveyed 1,016 professionals via Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for the survey, respondents had to indicate that they'd switched from working in-office to working from home at some point since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 1,016 professionals polled, 504 were employees, and 512 identified as managers or company decision-makers. An attention-check question was used to identify and disqualify respondents who failed to read questions and answers in their entirety. The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping. This survey ran during August 2020.

Fair Use Statement

If someone you know, including your employer, could benefit from the data presented here, feel free to share this study for noncommercial purposes. All we ask is that you include a link back to this page so readers can review it in its entirety and our authors can receive proper credit.