Click here to see what makes employees more satisfied and productive when they return to the office.
Studies show that after working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees overwhelmingly want to go back to the office—at least one day a week. With positive vaccine trials increasing the chance that there will soon be a viable vaccine, businesses now have an opportunity to plan for the future by considering what a flexible back-to-the-office plan could look like. They can learn from the experiences of those who had the opportunity to return to the workplace in the fall in order to devise an effective strategy.
For business leaders, the most crucial factor for success in bringing people back to the workplace is instilling confidence in their employees and gaining their acceptance. But what makes an employee feel safe and productive when they return to the office? This study examines the policies and conditions that impact an employee’s performance after returning to the workplace, and highlights the strongest approaches businesses can take in making the return a success.
Another wave of COVID-19 has forced many employees worldwide back to working from home. For businesses, understanding and applying the best policies for their eventual return to the workplace will ensure improved employee performance and business success. The findings from this survey can help businesses plan in advance so that they can be prepared for the future, especially once vaccines are widely distributed.
In October 2020, WeWork, in partnership with brightspot strategy, a research and strategy firm, conducted a blind survey that was representative of professional office employees across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe to determine the conditions that made employees more satisfied and productive when they returned to the office after working from home. It was designed as a blind survey, with no reference to WeWork or assessment of coworking.
- Those who returned to the office four to five days a week reported a 54 percent increase in morale compared to those working from home. Of all employees who returned to the office anywhere from one to five days, there was an over 40 percent rise in morale.
- Since returning to the workplace, employees reported improvement across all metrics as compared to those working from home. They saw a 3 percent rise in individual productivity, 6 percent rise in collaborative productivity, 4 percent increase in personal well-being, and 8 percent increase in experience of company culture.
- Those who said “working from home was not effective” saw an 18 percent rise in their experience of company culture back in the office. Conversely, those who said they had “no reason to return” saw no change or a drop in performance as compared to those working from home.
- The impact of a company providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer had the most positive impact on self-reported employee experience of company culture, improving 11 percent. A work environment judged to be moderate to very safe produced a 4 percent improvement in individual productivity, whereas one judged unsafe produced a 9 percent drop in individual productivity.
- Employees who thought their company’s handling of returning to the workplace was effective reported a 7 percent improvement in collaborative productivity and 12 percent improvement in experience of company culture. Company handling judged ineffective produced a 4 percent drop in performance of both collaborative productivity and company culture.
An employee’s ability to work productively, achieve personal satisfaction, and view their company positively are critical to business success. Individuals who are not engaged in their work have 37 percent higher absenteeism and 18 percent lower productivity. Teams that are unable to collaborate or communicate effectively result in negative interpersonal interactions, drop in innovation, and consequent revenue and profit losses. A workplace with unengaged employees, poor teamwork, and communication challenges leads to a toxic culture that impacts employers through high turnover—an estimated $223 billion over the past five years for U.S. companies.
This study assessed the impact of company policies and conditions on the self-reported performance of employees as they returned to the office compared to working from home. Across the four metrics evaluated, employees said they had an overall boost in performance since returning to the office. (See the full report for more detail on how individuals rated their abilities within each metric):
- Individual productivity increased by 3.1 percent
- Collaborative productivity increased by 6.1 percent
- Personal well-being increased by 4.2 percent
- Experience of company culture increased by 8.0 percent
While all four metrics improved on average since returning to the work environment, some conditions had a larger impact on performance.
A company’s response
Employees who felt that the transition back to the office was smooth and carefully planned out reported a 7 percent improvement in collaborative productivity and a 12 percent improvement in their experience of company culture. Those who judged their company’s handling ineffective saw a 4 percent drop in performance for both collaborative productivity and company culture.
A poor return to work experience was described by one employee as: “Bloody mindedness on part of management, many of whom are still working from home themselves.”
An additional factor affecting employee’s reported performance was the initial company response to the pandemic back in the spring. Poor perception of a company’s efforts to transition employees to work from home at the onset of COVID-19 engendered “distrust” against future attempts to reopen the workplace.
Perceived safety of the workplace
A work environment judged moderately to very safe produced a 4 percent improvement in individual productivity. One judged unsafe produced a 9 percent drop in individual productivity.
While acknowledging that complying with COVID-19 protocols in the office can be difficult and time-consuming, employees expressed how the systems in place to protect them had an overall positive effect. “Being alert to safety protocols” was reported as an important feature of returning to a work environment. Conversely, employees who felt unsafe reported additional stress that negatively affected their performance.
Critical to this perception is if a company provides reasonable safety precautions. The top three safety precautions companies provided included:
- mandated masks
- social distancing
- cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
A company providing PPE and hand sanitizer had the most positive impact on self-reported employee performance among all the safety precautions—an 11 percent increase in their experience of company culture.
Amount of time together in person
A critical mass of employees in the workplace improved an individual’s performance. Those who were on-site four or five days a week experienced between 6–9 percent improvement in productivity and personal well-being, and a 13 percent rise in experience of company culture. Those who were brought back only one or two days a week experienced less than 3 percent improvement in all metrics.
This was also true for employee morale. Employees who were on-site four or five days a week reported a 49–54 percent improvement in morale as compared to working from home. Those who were on-site only one day a week reported a 31 percent rise in morale—lower than the average of a 40 percent rise in morale.
Employees said that the most important benefits of returning to a work environment were related to interacting with colleagues: social interactions; collaborating with colleagues or clients; and feeling part of a work community.
Employees felt “energized” and “refreshed” as key benefits of returning to the office. They said the ability to communicate successfully was critical. Conversely, staggered returns contributed to communication and productivity challenges. “Everyone is not present on-site continuously, so there are still communication problems,” said one respondent. “Not everyone is there because we rotate. So sometimes we have to wait a few days for something,” said another.
Amenities in the office
The most important features provided in the workplace, as identified by employees, included having a dedicated workspace and access to technology. Employees with access to a dedicated workspace in the office reported a 6 percent improvement in personal well-being as compared to working from home. At the office, employees said positives include “having access to everything I need to work at 100% with clients” and “feeling more productive and motivated.”
A company that provided necessary technologies like good internet connectivity and faster tools to facilitate communication also created a more positive employee experience.
Understanding employee workstyles and who is or is not effective working from home can be used as a tool to determine which employees might benefit most from returning to an office. This can be used to establish a community of colleagues who frequently interact or depend on one another for collaborating. Coordinating their schedules will ensure that the right people are together at the right times.
As we look toward the future of work, policies that companies put in place will continue to impact employee success. Continuing to assess, monitor, and respond to employee perceptions and preferences as the workplace adjusts to the pandemic will ensure improved employee performance and sustained business success.
Click here to see all the conditions that make for a successful return to the office.