How Do HR and Employees Feel about Return to Office: Expectations vs. Reality

We surveyed more than 700 HR managers, small business owners, and employees who pivoted to remote work during the pandemic to get their opinions about returning to the office.

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Yes, the office is coming back. After 16 long months since millions of employees left their offices, companies are calling their workers back. But most companies are rethinking what a post-pandemic work environment looks like for their employees. We’re already seeing friction between employers and employees about requiring everyone to come back to the office.

A new survey found 4 out of 10 employers will fire employees for not returning to the office. On the flipside, employees are quitting their jobs at record rates instead of giving up remote work.

What was once an employee perk is becoming an employee right.

Read more: Returning to the Office? A Month-by-Month Guide to Get Your Employees Back to the Office

Employees prefer the flexibility of working wherever they want, and countless studies have shown working from home is more productive. Hybrid models where employees work part of the time in the office, and part of the time at home, is emerging as the clear winner for most businesses who are still remote.

To get more insight about what employers and employees are looking for as they return to the office, Workest by Zenefits surveyed more than 700 small business owners, HR managers, and employees to see what each cohort thinks.

Over 90% of workers enjoy working from home, but HR and employees are split when it comes to returning to the office

Of the 246 HR managers and small business owners we surveyed, the majority (91%) said they personally enjoy working from home, citing work/life balance as their top reason.

Even though they enjoy working from home, the majority of HR managers and small business owners (68%) said they want to return to a physical workplace.

42% of HR managers and small business owners cited in-person meetings and collaborations as their #1 reason to return to the office. Other reasons include:

  • Social interactions with colleagues (37%)
  • In-office perks (15%)
  • A dedicated workspace (5%)

On the flip side of the 498 employees we surveyed, 94% said they enjoyed working from home, citing work-life balance (41%), flexible work hours (22%), and lack of commute (14%) as their top 3 reasons.

But employees are split on returning to the office: 53% said they want to return to a physical workplace, while 47% said they want to remain remote.

The top reason why employees want to return to a physical office? Social interactions with colleagues (44%). Other reasons include:

  • In-person meetings and collaboration (33%)
  • In-office perks (13%)
  • A dedicated workspace (10%)

Employees are coming back this year, and hybrid work rules

The majority (93%) of HR managers and small business owners said their company has had discussions about bringing employees back to a physical workplace. Over half (54%) of respondents said they will have a hybrid work schedule, 30% said they will allow employees to stay remote, and 17% said they will have employees return to a physical office 100% of the time.

The timeline for rolling out new schedules varies, but most are looking to bring employees back by the end of the year. We asked HR managers and small business owners when they will bring people back to a physical workplace, and they said:

  • Summer (June to September) 2021: 32%
  • Fall (October to December) 2021: 53%
  • Winter (January to March) 2022: 15%

As employees return to a physical workplace, HR managers and small business owners will be modifying the office. The top changes they cited include:

  1. Increased sanitization and cleaning
  2. Desks 6 feet apart
  3. Requiring employees to social distance
  4. Increased air circulation
  5. Reduced use of shared areas (break rooms, lobbies, conference rooms)
  6. Adding barriers between desks

What employees expect from their employers

Most employees (57%) said their employer is requiring them to return to a physical office, but they expect changes. Employees expect that their employers:

  • Increase sanitization and cleaning (68%)
  • Enforce social distancing (55%)
  • Have access to hand sanitizer (53%)
  • Reduce use of shared areas, such as break rooms, lobbies, meeting rooms (40%)
  • Increase air circulation (37%)
  • Erect barriers between work spaces (30%)

New work perks

87% of HR managers and small business owners are rethinking their benefits and perks to employees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of respondents (90%) are offering a flexible work schedule outside the traditional 9-to-5 hours, Monday through Friday.

Other perks include:

  • Childcare benefits
  • Access to mental health and wellness programs
  • Transportation benefits
  • Casual attire
  • Pet-friendly office environment

4 out of 10 (38%) of employees said their employers are NOT offering additional perks to transition back to the workplace.

While mental wellbeing has been a popular perk among employers, 40% of employees said their employer has NOT introduced mental health programs since the start of the pandemic. But companies may want to rethink this strategy, as 70% of employees have had an increase in stress levels since the start of the pandemic.

Where opinions differ among HR managers, SMBs, and their employees

Most HR managers and small business owners feel like they took adequate measures to protect employees’ mental and physical health.

While most (94%) employers and employees (92%) agree that their companies took measures to protect employees’ physical health, they disagree when it comes to mental health. 91% of employers said they took measures to protect employees’ mental health, while 83% of employees agree.

On a scale of 1 to 5, 80% of employers agree or strongly agree with the statement “My company is taking an organized approach to bringing employees back to the physical workplace.”

On the flipside, only 69% of employees agree or strongly agree with that statement.

Where they agree … productivity

84% of employers and 80% of employees agree that productivity has increased since pivoting to remote work. 86% of employers and 82% of employees said the quality of work has improved.

The generational divide

It may be a surprise that almost all generations in the workforce enjoy working from home: Gen Z-ers (91%), Millennials (96%), and Gen X-ers (93%), and Baby Boomers (96%).

Surprisingly, young employees want to return to a physical workspace: 62% of Gen Z-ers and 58% of Millennials want to return to the office, vs. only 39% of Gen X-ers and 50% of Baby Boomers do.

Why does the youngest generation want to return to the office? Over half of Gen Z-ers (53%) said they miss social interactions with colleagues.

Additionally, about 70% of Gen Z-ers, Millennials, and Gen X-ers said they have experienced increased levels of stress, while only 57% of Baby Boomers said they have.

Vaccinations in the workplace

80% of HR managers and small business owners said they are requiring employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination before returning to the office.

71% of employees want their employers to mandate vaccinations before returning to a physical workplace, and 80% of employers want them to require face masks for unvaccinated employees.

Policies about vaccinations were also split among the generations: 76% of Gen Z-ers want their employer to require employees to be vaccinated, while only 57% of Baby Boomers want it.

When it comes to mask wearing, 12% of HR managers and small business owners said they will NOT require employees who are unvaccinated to wear a mask or protective face coverings.

Methodology and limitations

We surveyed 744 people via Alchemer in June 2021 about returning to the office. The participants are HR Managers, small- to medium-sized business (SMB) owners, and full-time, W2 employees of SMBs. We defined SMBs as companies with 5 to 499 employees. The respondents pivoted to remote work when the pandemic started, and are working remotely 100% of the time as of June 2021.

Of all the survey participants, 53% identified as female, 46% identified as male, and 1% identified as non-binary. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 70.

The main limitation of the study is its reliance on self-reported data. Issues with self-reported responses include, but aren’t limited to, exaggeration, selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and recency bias.

Fair use statement

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