Employees are eager to get back to the workplace—if it’s safe

Despite reports of risks, many employees would prefer in-person or hybrid working to fully remote.
By: | November 17, 2020 • 2 min read
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Despite the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases in this country—more than 10 million and climbing—more than half of employees are ready to return to the workplace, either on a full-time or hybrid basis.

Maybe it’s because they’re better educated than they were a few months ago on how to combat the pandemic and keep themselves and their family safe, explains Adam Pressman, partner and business segment leader for employee research and engagement at Mercer, an HR consulting firm.

But that wasn’t the case earlier this year.

“We have seen this shift quite a bit over the last six months,” he says, adding that earlier in 2020, Mercer conducted multiple surveys gauging employee preferences, which have trended toward a return in recent months. “The data we’ve seen is that the majority of people want to return to work.”

However, he says, more than half prefer a hybrid arrangement that enables them to work remotely and at the workplace, as needed.

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Mercer’s surveys also revealed that transparency about how employers are ensuring a safe workplace is key to gaining employee confidence. What preventive measures are being taken? What policies and procedures are in place, being observed and enforced? Is this information shared with the workforce? How often?

Meanwhile, a new report by the Centers for Disease Control offers some disturbing findings: Out of 310 employees tested for COVID-19 in July, about half tested positive. Those individuals were compared to a control group that tested negative. The COVID-19 group were more likely to report that they exclusively worked in an office or went to school. However, one-third of those in the control group reported working from home while half sometimes worked remotely.

Related: 4 culture strategies for creating a hybrid workplace

Still, nearly 67% of 1,016 professionals prefer flexible hours and staggered in-person work times, according to an Office Depot survey conducted in August. While Mercer survey responses indicate that bathrooms are perceived as the biggest health risk of on-site working, 58% responding to the Office Depot survey pointed to meetings and conference rooms, followed by common areas (53%), bathrooms (49%), and desk or work stations (48%).

Not surprisingly, employees miss interacting with co-workers. More than half (55%) of those responding to the Office Depot survey say they look forward to seeing their co-workers. Another 43% are looking forward to having a personal workspace, regular schedule (36%) and fewer videoconferencing calls (32%). Yet, Office Depot found that 51% are willing to forfeit vacation days to continue working remotely.

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Pressman says that many employers will start bringing back their workforce in January.

See also: Disney takes top spot for company most admired for HR

“It may ebb and flow,” he says, explaining that, depending upon the pandemic’s trajectory, employees may return to the office, then work from home and return to the workplace again. “But when they do come into the office, they want to come back to an emptier workspace. They only want to see four or five people walking around and feel safe.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.