Human Workplace Index: The Office – To Return or Not to Return?

April 5, 2022 Sarah Bloznalis

woman standing in door way smiling

It was about a year ago when the state of the workplace began to transform. It started with quiet whispers sprinkled amongst the workforce – the desire for something better, something more meaningful. These whispers would shortly become louder and louder, until the entire workforce was roaring like a sold-out stadium.

Looking back, April 2021 was the beginning of what would become a historic phase in the workplace: the Great Resignation. In the span of a month, 3.8 million U.S. workers quit their jobs – the highest number since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking in 2000 – and the trend only continued. And while each employee quits for their own reasons, the consensus was clear: Employees want flexibility, humanity, and compassion from their employers.

Fast forward to today and it seems like employees are starting to see meaningful change. In this month’s Human Workplace Index (HWI), the majority of workers surveyed are happy with their current company (79%) and aren’t planning to leave (63%). So, what is keeping workers where they are and what is driving them away? This month’s survey focuses on one of the most important factors, according to employees: the impending return to the office.

The latest on return to office

A desire for greater flexibility was certainly one of the driving forces of the record-breaking level of quits over the past year. And many organizations, depending on industry, role, or situation, did provide employees the ability to tailor their schedules to their lives. Is this benefit simply a pandemic fad or a long-lasting shift in work culture?

Based on this month’s survey, it could go either way. More than half of respondents report being required to return on-site on a full-time basis (51%). Some of the reasons for this mandate, employees reported, include to build stronger relationships (19%), keep a closer eye on employees (18%), and foster collaboration (12%).

And while close to one-third of workers (30%) are looking for a new job because their employer wants them in the office part time or full- time, this isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, 71% of workers surveyed agree with their employers’ decision to return to the work.

This data may sound promising to companies looking to return to the world of work we knew pre-pandemic, but there is reason for pause. Of the 29% of workers who don’t agree with their employer’s decision, the reasons why include:

  • It’s unnecessary; people have successfully worked remotely the past two years - 43%
  • People should have the option of in-person, remote, or hybrid work setup - 31%

Employers should take these concerns seriously before it’s too late – again. Not every worker was able to work remotely/hybrid, but it may be difficult to walk away from for those who were able to. Remote or hybrid workers may be excited to return to the office now, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Financial concerns

While wasting time on commutes and wearing business casual clothes are real – and valid – reasons for wanting to work remotely, they aren’t the only reasons. More than half of workers surveyed (55%) have concerns about being able to afford extra expenses associated with on-site work. The reasons behind this concern include: living paycheck to paycheck (41%), falling behind on bills (24%), and racking up debt (21%).

Even workers who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck expect their expenses to increase when returning to the office. Among the additional expenses are travel expenses (commuting, gas prices, parking, etc.) (61%), the rising cost of living (41%), and child/elderly care (27%). Not to mention the many employees who relocated during the pandemic, when work from home was the norm for many. This month’s survey found 42% of all respondents will have to move out of the place they relocated to be in the office.

Equity in the workplace

While many employees may be ready to get back to on-site work, that doesn’t mean they are ready to go back to the way things were. In fact, those workers who benefitted most from a remote or hybrid environment – women and People of Color, especially – may be wearier of the return to in-person work than other employees. Working remotely offered these employees the ability to work in a way that suits their needs, away from office politics, micro-aggressions, and work environments that don’t treat employees equitably.

In this month’s survey, 50% of workers reported being a manager. When broken down by gender, however, nearly twice as many men (62%) stated they are managers than women (38%). This may be disheartening, but it shouldn’t be surprising. As mentioned in last month’s HWI focused on women in the workplace, women only account for 25% of C-suite positions.

If employees are to return to in-person work, organizations should be doing everything they can to make work better for employees. Back-to-work celebrations and a new cappuccino machine aren’t going to work, though. What could work is a culture of equity, acceptance, and appreciation.

One step toward changing this is giving every employee the same opportunities to advance in their career as their counterparts are given, regardless of gender, race, or anything else. That also means respecting individual employees and their needs, schedules, and concerns in the new world of work. We need to create workplace cultures employees want to be a part of.

About the Author

Sarah Bloznalis

Sarah Bloznalis is a content marketing coordinator at Workhuman from Dorchester, Mass. When she's not writing about the future of work you can find her in the library, at the beach, or exploring the city.

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