Do I Really Have to Return to the Office?

One in five workers says there is “nothing” they are looking forward to about coming back. How can companies make the option more agreeable?

During the COVID-19 crisis, many corporate executives have been surprised at how quickly their employees could adapt to doing their jobs remotely. What may surprise them more is that many of those employees aren’t too keen about going back to the workplace.

When Korn Ferry asked more than 1,000 professionals this month what they were most looking forward to when they return to the office, 20% of them said “nothing.” At the same time, half of them said they are fearful of going back due to health concerns. The indifference and wariness is a reminder to corporate leaders that going back to whatever “normal” work life was before the outbreak may be unrealistic or, worse, counterproductive. “The way we work will see a dramatic change as the nation slowly reopens,” says Bryan Ackermann, Korn Ferry’s global leader of assessment and succession, leadership and professional development.

Only about 30% of the survey respondents believe they’ll be back working at the office when it reopens. That isn’t surprising, as many companies are only gradually bringing back employees, even as COVID-19 restrictions loosen in many parts of the world. But experts say it’s specifically what those plans and precautions will be that have workers on edge.

To date, many organizations seem to be struggling with what will work best. Some are considering apps that track employee whereabouts in the office or setting guidelines on what activities to avoid, while also determining ways to make social distancing work in tighter office surroundings. “A lot of companies are experimenting at the moment,” says Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global solutions leader for leadership development.

But all the tests in the world won’t eliminate one concern on many workers’ minds: the commute. For many employees, whether coming to an office or a factory, the workday often involves commuting with other people and sharing space with workers from different companies. Not everyone can afford their own bus fleet to shuttle around employees or rent out an entire office building. Indeed, the Korn Ferry survey pointed out high levels of anxiety about returning to work, even as 75% of the respondents were confident their own employer would create a safe environment.

Even more complex, according to experts, is that many people find their work environment unmotivating. Myriad surveys show that only about one-third of employees say they are engaged at work. In the new Korn Ferry survey, nearly two-thirds, or 64% of respondents, say they’re more productive at home.

All of these factors are why some experts say corporate leaders need to rethink work arrangements. The shift to remote work has shown that huge swaths of the workforce don’t need to be tied down to a desk. “Companies wouldn’t have chosen to go 100% overnight, but most have adapted well,” says Baltzley.