Back to the Office: Why Employees Are Resistant to Return20 Jul 2021
We may all be craving a return to normalcy in a post-COVID world, but many U.S. workers are resisting the return to traditional office settings and are restless for new opportunities.
Nearly half of all workers (49 percent) in PMI’s recent “Return to the Office” survey say they would rather find a new job than return to the office. That sentiment is especially pronounced among caregivers (61 percent), many of whom experienced significant stress during the COVID crisis.
The findings are all the more significant because most workers will be returning to the office in some form in the near future. Of workers whose company shifted to a work-from-home model during the pandemic, nearly three-quarters say they will either be required to return to the office (40 percent) or will be working in a hybrid model (31 percent). Just 13 percent say they will be allowed to choose their preferred work style, and seven percent will remain fully virtual. The remaining respondents (10 percent) say their employer hasn’t communicated a return-to-office plan.
What’s behind workers’ reluctance to return to the office? Of those employees required to return, the most significant concerns are around commuting (37 percent), mental health (37 percent) and having to work long hours (31 percent). Caregivers are especially worried about their mental health (40 percent) compared to non-caregivers (29 percent).
When asked to choose, 61 percent of workers would return to the office full time if they were given a 10 percent salary increase instead of the alternative option of being able to work from home permanently without a bump in pay.
Even looking beyond COVID, however, many employees seem to be restless for new opportunities. More than half of respondents (56 percent) say they are seriously considering a career change, and nearly as many (44 percent) say they are likely to leave their jobs in six months, with one in four (25 percent) saying they are very likely to leave. Of these, millennials (52 percent), parents (51 percent) and caregivers (57 percent) are even more likely to say they will leave in the next six months.
COVID may be partially responsible for this reaction. Likely job hoppers attribute their restlessness to a lack of growth (31 percent), while another 21 percent cite burnout and 20 percent point to delayed promotions.
But others seem to be looking for entirely new opportunities. Twenty-five percent say they want a new career, and 20 percent say they want to focus on developing new skills. Women, in particular, are more likely than men to say they want a new career (33 percent vs. 19 percent).
Part of this may be due to burnout related to caregiving responsibilities—which tend to fall more heavily on women. American workers have a lot on their plates. Forty-two percent of all respondents say they have children under the age of 10, and 59 percent say they are either the primary or supporting caregiver for someone other than their children. And they spend a lot of time in caregiving roles: more than 3.5 hours per day on average among parents and nearly 3 hours per day on average among caregivers.
Workers may also be reluctant to give up some of the benefits they experienced while working from home. Many workers, for example, were able to prioritize their mental health (53 percent), take breaks (46 percent), work out (39 percent) and take lunch breaks (39 percent) during the crisis. And fully 76 percent of workers say they feel more productive now than they did six months ago—especially millennials (84 percent).
There are other bright spots in the survey findings. Four in five (81 percent) respondents say they feel more positive about work in general because of the vaccine rollout—particularly parents and caregivers (87 percent each). Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of respondents whose employers have communicated a return-to-office plan say their employers conducted a survey or solicited their feedback as part of that process. And most of those workers (90 percent) say they feel leadership took their preferences into account when formulating the plan, although a third (33 percent) admitted they didn’t fully understand their company’s return-to-office blueprint.
Workers also seem to recognize that getting a new or better job means re-skilling or upskilling. Two in three (66 percent) workers say they wish they had different skills to get a better job. When asked what skills they would tell their younger selves to develop, respondents cite technical skills (49 percent), leadership (40 percent), communication (37 percent) and creativity (35 percent). Project management and problem solving (34 percent each) are right on par.
This desire to re-skill and upskill and workers’ broader interest in new opportunities is a good thing, in my view. We’ve just been through an unprecedented period that has tested workers and organizations, forcing them to reassess priorities and core strategies—as the survey suggests.
The survey, however, should also signal to executives that they need to proceed with caution in their return-to-office strategies. Those strategies will have a significant impact on employee health and well-being, the ability to attract and retain talent and in levels of employee engagement. The latter is particularly important, as engagement is key to empowering people to deliver positive business outcomes versus just “putting in the time.” If we keep our eyes trained on delivering outcomes of value, we all win, and the appropriate return-to-office strategy will follow.
PMI’s Return to the Office survey was a seven-minute online survey among 500 American workers fielded between June 4-7, 2021. The margin of error for the total sample at the 95 percent confidence level is +/- 4.38 percentage points.