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What Do Employees Want When They Return to the Office?

Research shows that most employees place a premium on work-life balance.

Key points

  • Recent studies have found that many people who worked remotely during the pandemic want to continue working from home.
  • Employees are often more productive, happier, and more engaged when given the chance for telework.
  • Stigma surrounding telework has decreased, making work from home a more viable choice for employees.
 StartupStockPhotos/Pixabay
Source: StartupStockPhotos/Pixabay

What do employees want in returning to the office?

It’s easy to assume we know what they want due to a dangerous judgment error termed the false consensus effect. This problematic mental blind spot causes us to perceive others who we feel to be in our team as sharing our beliefs. That’s often not the case.

The false consensus effect is one of over 100 misleading mental patterns that researchers in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience call cognitive biases.

These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to politics and even shopping. Fortunately, by learning about how to defeat the harmful impact of these dangerous judgment errors, we can make the wisest and most profitable decisions.

Survey Says…

To address the false consensus effect, we need to turn to objective data that doesn’t rely on our gut feelings and assumptions. A good way to do so is to examine the insights gleaned from several in-depth surveys of employees on post-pandemic remote work published recently. Here are the key conclusions of a meta-analysis comparing all of these studies:

  1. Over two-thirds of all employees who worked remotely in the pandemic want and expect to work from home half the time or more permanently, while over a fifth want to work remotely full-time.
  2. Over two-fifths would leave their current job if they didn’t have the option of remote work of two to three days per week.
  3. Over a quarter plan to leave their job after the pandemic, especially those who rate their company cultures as “C” or lower.
  4. Over two-fifths of all employees, especially younger ones, would feel concern over career progress if they worked from home while other employees like them did not.
  5. Most employees see telework and the flexibility it provides as a key benefit, and are willing to sacrifice substantial earnings for it.
  6. Employees are significantly more productive on average when working from home.
  7. Over three-quarters of all employees will feel happier and more engaged, be willing to go the extra mile, feel less stressed, and have more work-life balance with permanent opportunity for two to three days of telework.
  8. Over half of all employees feel overworked and burned out, and over three-quarters experience “Zoom fatigue” and want fewer meetings.
  9. Employees need funding for home offices and equipment, but no more than 25% of companies provided such funding so far.
  10. Over three-fifths of all employees report poor virtual communication and collaboration as their biggest challenge with remote work, and many want more training in these areas.

What Does Other Research Say?

Other research backs up this information. Consider a survey comparing the productivity of in-person vs. remote workers during the first six months of stay-at-home orders, March through August 2020, to the same March through August period in 2019. Employees showed a more than 5% increase in productivity over this period. Another study surveying 800 employers reported that 94% found that remote workers showed higher or equal productivity than before the pandemic. Non-survey research similarly shows significant productivity gains for remote workers during the pandemic.

Some might feel worried that these productivity gains are limited to the context of the pandemic. Fortunately, research shows that after a forced period of work from home, if workers are given the option to keep working from home, those who choose to do so experience even greater productivity gains than in the initial forced period.

An important academic paper from the University of Chicago provides further evidence of why working at home will stick. First, the researchers found that working at home proved a much more positive experience, for employers and employees alike, than either anticipated. That led employers to report a willingness to continue work-from-home after the pandemic.

Second, an average worker spent over 14 hours and $600 to support their work from home. In turn, companies made large-scale investments in back-end IT facilitating remote work. Some paid for home office/equipment for employees. Furthermore, remote work technology has improved over this time. Therefore, both workers and companies will be more invested into telework after the pandemic.

Third, stigma around telework has greatly decreased. Such normalization of work from home makes it a much more viable choice for employees.

The paper shows that employees perceive telework as an important perk. On average, they value it as 8% of their salary. The authors also find that most employers plan to move to a hybrid model after the pandemic, having employees come in about half the time. Given the higher productivity that the paper’s authors find results from remote work, they conclude that the post-pandemic economy will see about a six percent productivity boost.

Conclusion

Don’t assume that you know what your employees want when they return to the office. Cognitive biases such as the false consensus effect misleads us into thinking others in our group share our beliefs when it is often not the case. Surveys and research have shown that new habits, norms, and values picked up during the pandemic will continue to have a significant impact on the post-COVID workplace. A combination of mainly hybrid and some remote work is our future. Defend yourself from mental blind spots so you can make the best strategic decisions after the pandemic.

References

Tsipursky, G. (2021). Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. Columbus, OH: Intentional Insights Press.

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