What it takes to get workers back into the brick-and-mortar office

A new study reveals that 63% of workers may be ready for in-person work, according to analysis from Promoleaf.

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Image: iStock/Kiwis

COVID-19 has affected everyone, and hit the business world where it hurts—financially. In the US, there was a several-week shutdown for all but essential workers and organizations. Office-bound employees were sent to work from home, finding themselves 24/7 with their entire household, for the glass half full, this meant an intense, unprecedented time of family bonding, for the other set, the glass half empty, it meant too many virtual meetings, adjusting to working somewhere in the house, hopefully not right next to a partner who was attempting to do the same or children who were relegated to distance learning. 

But now, after months of reporting that workers had serious concerns about returning to their actual offices, a new analysis, The Promoleaf National COVID Office Survey found that 63% of employees said that they would be comfortable returning to the office (a little more than 27% said they would not be comfortable, and 10% are unsure about this dramatic shift back.)

"With the right protocols in place, people can safely and comfortably return to the workplace," said Jason Miller, founder of Promoleaf and report researcher. "However, employees must remain aware of the safety protocols that are put into place." 

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Image: Promoleaf

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The survey was conducted last month, and questioned 1,000 workers on what precautions and benefits would make a return to their brick-and-mortar office feasible for them. 

With the advent of the vaccine, people are prepared to return to the office. More than three-quarters of respondents want daily temperature checks, 59% want contact tracing, and more than 54% want regular diagnostic testing, while most want to see the office disinfected and sanitized daily, if not more often.

The majority of respondents said they want offices to operate with a reduced capacity inside, and very much want a hybrid opportunity, which means they're willing to come into the office, they definitely want to do so less frequently.

Workers want more benefits, too. They stated they wanted childcare, commuting assistance, and more to help offset costs saved when working remotely.

The Promoleaf report found that more than one in four are not comfortable returning to the office.

In the nine months of fully remote work, less than 40% were more productive from home, and 19% of those noted they'd be more productive if they were afforded the choice of where they want to work. 

And people are not tired of WFH. Many benefits provided were centered around what employees wanted: To recreate some of the benefits of working from home.

Trusting coworkers and keeping lines of communication open

Communication between employees and their supervisors, and between colleagues, as must more than 85% of employees described themselves as "somewhat satisfied" or "very satisfied." 

Employees are confident with their coworkers, because 75% of employees said the honor system would be fine, meaning that if regular health checks weren't required, they believed their coworkers would "do the right thing and not come into the office if they were feeling poorly or otherwise symptomatic.

Employees were confident and said they would be supportive: They want daily temperature checks, contact tracing, at-home health-surveys and regular required diagnostic testing. Respondents were in favor of daily testing; more than 40% felt testing every day is the best policy.  The most "strongly preferred" test among respondents was temperature testing at the door.

Employers need to install and require safety protocols

Businesses need to provide comfort and the safety protocols that employees wanted are: Plexiglass dividers, hand-sanitizer stations, social distancing, mask requirements all day, HVAC improvements and filters, replacement of high touch communal items with alternatives, and lastly, employees need to be asked to provide their own water bottles to avoid cross-contamination. Mandatory training on new health-and-safety protocols were either "strongly preferred" or "nice to have" by more than 91%.

The report said organizations should require employees to adhere to the "six daily habits" shown to minimize the spread of the coronavirus:

  • Wash your hands
  • Avoid close contact with others
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Clean and disinfect
  • Monitor your health

A regular disinfection of the office was "strongly preferred" by 65% of respondents and 90% would like surfaces to be changed to antiviral materials; 96% of employees want the office cleaned daily, and 39% said clearing should happen every two to three hours, and 33% want the cleaning hourly. 

Half cap, please

An overwhelming majority (91%) want the office capacity limited to 50%, 25% capacity is preferred by 35% polled, and 25% polled said the office should be at 10% capacity.

More than half believe that shifts, start times and breaks should always be staggered; another way to apply this strategy is to offset commuting by having employees not have to travel at peak traffic hours.

Hybrid workplace policies

Hybrid policies were greatly favored: 5.7% prefer to work remotely full time, but almost 22% want to be in the office one day a week, 24.5% want to be in twice a week, 26.5% think three days weekly is enough, while 11.8% preferred a four-day in-office work week, and 9.7% want to return to the office full time.

Remote fatigue

Respondents said what they missed about working in an office were in-person meetings and seeing coworkers in person around the office. Many are "Zoomed-out" and "Slacked-out," and are extremely weary of video calls and chat loops. 

Aspects of Zoom that are nearly impossible to control can impact coworkers perception. The report noted "A one to two second delay can make the other participants see you as less friendly and less focused. Silence is far from golden. It's uncomfortable and creates anxiety about whether or not technology is working."

People miss office freebies, special lunch spots, company parties and gatherings and their workspace. They were almost more distracted at home, from children and pets, struggle with focus at home, suffer screen fatigue and lack of routine, as well as missing access to office supplies, virtual learning curves and even boredom.

Remote benefits

Respondents were asked to weigh in on the biggest benefits of remote work and were allowed multiple answers, which included flexible hours, more family time, more time with pets, no commute, and better eating habits.

The top three responses in terms of benefits center around food, children and commuting.

Shifting remote benefits to in-office 

The most requested benefits were employee meal programs, subsidized in-home childcare, learning pods for children on premises, option to shift work hours and covered commuting costs.

"Over time, it is easy for folks to grow more comfortable and overlook simple safety practices like wearing a mask and maintaining safe distances from other colleagues," Miller said. "But as long as employees are vigilant and hold each other accountable, an office environment should be a safe place to resume visiting."

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By N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is a writer at TechRepublic and based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist coveri...