Report: Companies turning tail on return-to-office plans

New data reveals five major findings that are dramatically shaping the future of work.

5 forces shaping the future of work

The pandemic continues to transform traditional notions of work in rather astounding ways. And the data increasingly shows there may be no going back to the old way of doing things.

A new survey published by The Conference Board reveals that nearly half of businesses have not communicated plans for returning to a brick-and-mortar workplace. The survey also finds that just 9% of employees are currently working in an office full time.

And it may be the way for the foreseeable future. The data shows that concerns about contracting COVID-19 and exposing family members to the virus have doubled over the last seven months. Meanwhile, engagement and mental health scores continue to decline.

Major findings—culled from more than 2,000 U.S. workers—include:

1. Return-to-office plans continue to stall.

Seventy-one percent of companies changed return-to-the-workplace plans due to the recent surges.

  • The recent rise of COVID-19 cases resulted in 71 percent of respondents’ companies delaying plans to return to the workplace or reverting to remote/hybrid work.
    • 30 percent were back in the workplace and reverted to remote/hybrid work.
    • 41 percent rescheduled or cancelled plans to return.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) have not determined a date to return to the physical workplace.

Just 9% of survey respondents are in a physical office full time.

  • Less than one in 10 survey respondents, who are primarily knowledge workers, are in the office full time.
  • Forty-six percent are fully remote.
  • Forty-five percent work a hybrid schedule, with some days remote and some in the office.

2. Serious COVID-19 doubts, anxieties linger.

According to The Conference Board’s data, COVID-19 concerns have doubled over the last eight months.

  • Forty-eight percent say exposing family members to COVID-19 was among their greatest concerns in returning to the workplace.
  • The same number say contracting it personally was among their greatest concerns.
    • In May 2021, exposing family members to COVID-19 or contracting it personally were of greatest concern to 28 and 24%, respectively.
  • Forty-three percent question the wisdom of returning to the workplace given the belief that productivity remained high while working remotely, the same as in May 2021.

Two years into the pandemic, 20% of workers are “not at all comfortable” with the notion of returning to the workplace.

  • However, 40% are “moderately comfortable” with returning to the workplace.

Individual contributors (30%) are uncomfortable returning to the workplace at four times the rate of CEOs (just 7%).

  • Women are slightly more uncomfortable returning than men:
    • Women: 22%
    • Men: 16%

Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of Human Capital for The Conference Board, explains that the pandemic is still dominating (and upending) companies’ future-of-work plans: “Amid the vast uncertainty with returning to the workplace,” she says, “coupled with the strong discomfort many feel about returning, these results make clear: This relentless pandemic continues to dictate workplace plans and policies.”

Ray offers clarity on how companies should proceed amid such volatility:

“The need for continued flexibility, transparency and empathy from management remains a top priority. While many are eager to return to a sense of normalcy, simply mandating a return date and highlighting the safety protocols that will be in place is not enough; leaders need to articulate a compelling reason to return to the workplace at all.”

3. Why resignations won’t stop anytime soon.

One in 10 respondents intend to leave their organizations in the next six months.

  • Better pay (45%), career advancement (39%), and the ability to work from anywhere (28%) remain the top reasons workers left or intend to leave their jobs.
  • Just 7% cite concerns over vaccine mandates as the reason they left or intend to leave.
  • Millennials (30%) left or plan to leave their jobs at nearly three times the rate of Baby Boomers (11%). Retirement was cited as the top reason Baby Boomers left or intend to leave their jobs in the next six months (36%).
  • Women (14%) cite new supervisor/manager as the reason for leaving their position at nearly two times the rate of men (8%).

4. Employee engagement is sinking.

Decreasing engagement levels affect more workers—especially women, individual contributors, and Millennials.

  • Twenty-four percent report decreased levels of engagement. That’s an increase from 19% in August 2021 and 15% in May 2021, demonstrating a steady decline in engagement levels over the past eight months.
  • Individual contributors report declines in engagement levels at nearly three times the rate of CEOs.
    • Individual contributors: 31%
    • CEOs: 11%
  • Engagement levels have decreased slightly more for women than men during the pandemic:
    • Women: 26%
    • Men: 21%
  • Millennials, especially, report decreased engagement during the pandemic:
    • Millennials: 28%
    • Gen X: 26%
    • Baby Boomers: 21%

Robin Erickson, The Conference Board’s VP of Human Capital, lays out the great challenge facing employers: “With one in four workers suffering decreased levels of engagement, fighting the burnout battle will be a defining challenge for businesses in 2022.”

Erickson elaborates on how to survive this period of profound disruption:

“This challenge is made even greater by today’s tight labor market, a time of historic quit rates and plentiful job opportunities. Companies will need to prioritize building and sustaining a strong culture, offering flexibility where possible, and ensuring opportunities for growth and development to attract—and retain—the best and brightest.”

5. Mental health concerns merit serious attention.

Women disproportionately self-reported their mental health declined during the pandemic.

  • Women report that their mental health declined during the pandemic at a higher rate than men:
    • Women: 54%
    • Men: 41%
  • Millennials and Gen X report a deterioration of their mental health more than Baby Boomers:
    • Millennials: 54%
    • Gen X: 52%
    • Baby Boomers: 42%
  • More individual contributors reported experiencing a deterioration of their mental health than CEOs:
    • Individual contributors: 50%
    • CEOs: 38%

Armed with this knowledge, how will your company proceed or alter course as needed? How will you navigate these choppy waters as a business—all while empowering your workers to thrive during these trying times?

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.