Firms’ enthusiasm for scaling back on office space may have cooled slightly, with a new survey by professional services group KPMG suggesting that CEOs no longer intend to downsize their physical footprint after the COVID-19 pandemic.

KPMG’s 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey indicated that only 17% of chief executives plan to reduce office space, compared to more than two-thirds (69%) of those surveyed in August 2020.

At the same time, just 30% said they planned to have the majority of employees working remotely 2-3 days per week – potentially scuppering the hopes of employees who hoped, or even expected, for remote working to become the ‘new normal’ in the post-pandemic workspace.

KPMG said the results suggested that bosses were more confident about a return to normal office life thanks to the “positive momentum” of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. CEOs also feel they are on stronger footing than they were a year ago, thanks to successful digitization initiatives.

Despite this, only one-third (31%) of CEOs said they anticipated a return to normal in 2021, while 45% expect things to return to normal in 2022. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of companies said they would wait until a vaccine had been rolled out successfully before they asked their staff to return to the office, and 76% said they would wait until the government said it was safe to return to the office before encouraging their staff to do so.

“Before any major decisions are made, CEOs want to be confident that their workforce is protected against this virus,” said Bill Thomas, global chairman and CEO of KPMG.

“The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is providing leaders with a dose of optimism as they prepare for a new reality. CEOs are scenario planning for certain key markets that may experience vaccine shortages that could impact their operations, supply chains and people, leading to uneven economic recovery.”

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

A number of major companies have announced plans to resize or recalibrate their office space in the coming years to accommodate for a more hybrid style of in-office and at-home working.

Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce and Spotify are just some of the companies to have either extended remote-working allowances indefinitely, or announced a permanent, long-term shift to remote-first working.

This week, UK building society Nationwide announced it was closing three of its offices in Swindon, south-west England, while introducing a new flexible-working policy that will allow 13,000 staff to split their time between working at home or in the company’s headquarters.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

According to KPMG’s survey: “wholesale moves toward remote working remain the exception rather than the rule”. It found that 30% of business leaders were committed to a hybrid model of working patterns, while just 21% were looking to hire talent to work predominantly remotely, down from 73% in last year’s survey.

On the subject of office scale-backs, KPMG noted some businesses may have already implemented changes over the course of 2020. “Either downsizing has already taken place, or plans have changed as the impact of extended, unplanned, remote working has taken a toll on some employees,” the company said.

The survey also offered insight into the extent to which COVID-19 had fast-forwarded businesses’ digital transformation plans.

Three-quarters (74%) said the pandemic had accelerated progress by a matter of months, while 15% said COVID-19 had put them “years ahead of where they expected to be.”