Worried About Returning to the Office

Nearly 75% of professionals tell Korn Ferry that a return to the office will be negative for their mental health. With the pandemic fading, leaders have their work cut out for them.



The pandemic is fading, mask mandates are going away, even the weather is starting to improve—all reasons, one might think, that after nearly two years of working at home America’s former office dwellers would be ready to return to the office.

One would be very wrong.

In a new survey, almost two-thirds, or 64%, of professionals tell Korn Ferry that returning to the office will have a negative impact on their mental health. Employees, by a 74% to 26% margin, also believe that it will be harder to go back into the office than it was having to work at home at the start of the pandemic.

The survey is more evidence that employees are reluctant to return to their old workplaces, and they certainly don’t want to go back full-time. Experts say that employers who ignore this recalcitrance may find themselves looking for new employees in a very tight labor market. “Employers have to show why the return to the office is beneficial to both the employee and the firm,” says Juan Pablo Gonzàlez, Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Professional Services practice.

The Korn Ferry survey, which polled 570 professionals across the country, comes at a time when employers are finally seeing a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Kastle Systems, a building security provider, reports that US offices, on average, were back to 36% of their pre-pandemic occupancy levels last week, based on a survey of keycard swipes in 10 major metro areas, an improvement from 31% the week earlier. States and municipalities have been dropping mask mandates. Wall Street banks have already ordered many of their employees back to work. Other large employers are targeting later in March or April to have their employees return. And this week the federal government is expected to encourage its own employees to return to their respective offices.

Regardless of the employer, managers are likely going to face a workforce not particularly happy to be back at their desks. In the Korn Ferry survey, 74% said the commute is what they are least looking forward to. The average US commute in 2019, before the pandemic, was nearly 28 minutes each way, according to US Census data, although commuting time for many people is far longer. For nearly two years, remote-working employees have used the time normally spent travelling to and from the workplace for more productive endeavors, such as working, spending time with family, exercising, or even sleeping. 

Only 5% said dealing with their boss in person was what they were least likely to look forward to. Just 13% said office politics was the thing they looked least forward to.

Experts suggest giving employees a few options for returning to the office. Some companies are setting a deadline for when employees have to be back but are not expressly saying how many days each week an employee then has to be at the office. “It’s a hard-dates-with-flexibility approach,” says Kristi Drew, Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account leader for Financial Services. These companies are letting employees work out with their individual managers how many days they need to be at the bricks-and-mortar workplace.

That type of flexibility may be what employees want most. Earlier in the year, a survey of 10,000 knowledge workers found that 78% want location flexibility and that 72% are unhappy with their company’s current flexibility level and will seek other opportunities within the year.