Just 1 in 10 companies expect all employees to return to the office

Only about 1 in 10 companies expect all employees to return to their pre-pandemic work arrangements, according to a new survey.

The National Association for Business Economics found that just 11 percent of survey respondents expect all staff members at their companies to return eventually. Around 65 percent of companies have allowed “most” or “all” of their staff members to work from home during the pandemic, and about half of respondents said they plan to continue the policies until the second half of the year.

“For the most part, companies that are able to provide work-from-home are doing so and are continuing to do so,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of the executive outplacement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Challenger said his conversations with human resources executives indicated a reluctance to mandate a return to the office while the virus is still circulating and parts of the country face surges. In some cases, local or state lockdowns, school and day care closings or restrictions on building capacities also limit employers’ options.

Workplace experts are fielding questions from anxious human resources managers trying to game out a path forward in a work environment without precedent. “A lot of people are trying to figure out what’s the best balancing act. It’s been going on for a lot longer than anyone anticipated,” said Melissa White, HR knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, the long duration of workplace disruption has prompted some people to adapt to, and prefer, the new normal, White said. “Now employees may be super-comfortable where they’re at, or they may be over it and ready to be back in the office.”

A new survey from the consulting firm PwC came to a similar conclusion. “Executives and employees [are] converging around a post-pandemic future with a lot more flexibility, yet few are prepared to completely abandon the office space,” PwC said. The majority of companies, it said, are developing hybrid offerings in which people work from home some days and in their offices on other days.

Some big companies, particularly in the technology sector, had already planned for the prospect that employees would be reluctant to return to the office: Facebook and Twitter announced that they would let workers work from home indefinitely, while Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that it would let Google employees remain at home until September and then move to a hybrid model.

What those hybrid workweeks will ultimately look like, however, is up in the air.

“We’re still in the midst of a crisis, and companies are still experimenting,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. “I do think that eventually most workers will return to an in-person job, at least for the vast majority of the economy.”

Glassdoor’s employee base was a good example, Chamberlain said. When the company surveyed its staff members, it found that 70 percent preferred a blend of working from home and from the office. “Most people miss the in-person interactions, and I think that’s a common sentiment,” he said.

Chamberlain said that aside from missing out on the camaraderie and communication of face-to-face work, some employees worry about getting ahead in their fields if their colleagues know them primarily as thumbnail avatars or voices on the phone.

“There is a perception that if you’re not in-person, you won’t have the soft opportunities for influence, like the conversation over lunch with an executive. It’s definitely a concern, especially for more senior-level employees,” Chamberlain said.

Feeling disengaged from colleagues can have a detrimental effect at the institutional level, as well. Companies can face motivational, engagement and retention challenges when co-workers are relegated to remote communication.

“A lot of the concerns for employers is if they’re going to have this remote workforce, how do they deal with performance issues?” White said. “That’s something many employers are definitely struggling with.”

Challenger predicted that the concern will make employers eager to facilitate their staffers’ return to the office, as least part time.

“The breakdown of those social bonds in the workplace, I think, makes jobs a lot more disposable to a lot of people,” he said. “You spend more of your waking hours with your colleagues than you do with your family. I think a lot of people are ready to go back to the office once it’s safe.”