Office Hours: Assessing Employee Needs When Returning to the Workplace

Jim Durkin


June 1, 2021

Man with a briefcase returning to an empty office.

It has been more than a year since companies around the world had to quickly develop and implement strategies and processes to shut down physical offices and shift legions of employees to remote work. As more people get vaccinated, infection rates decrease and regional restrictions lift, executives and human resources departments now face the challenge of deciding which employees to bring back into the workplace and when.

Navigating productivity and employee preferences can be tricky. Employers do not want to risk losing quality employees who are thriving at home by forcing them back, or those who are struggling working from home by prolonging it longer than necessary. It is essential to strike the right balance to maximize opportunities for in-person collaboration, meetings and events.

The prospect of returning to in-person activities evokes conflicting feelings across the population. While many are concerned, others are eager, and some are both. In a March 2021 study from the American Psychological Association, half of adults reported feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions after the pandemic, and this remained the case among the (admittedly small) portion of respondents who had already received the COVID-19 vaccine at that early date.

It is clear that the pandemic has generally had a negative impact on mental health, and given the amount of time and focus people typically spend on their jobs, the isolation and disruption to working conditions have undoubtedly played a role. However, disruption to newly formed routines, concerns about the continuing risk of COVID-19 infections, different home situations and associated responsibilities, and personal work and social life preferences are all potential factors that result in very different feelings about the prospect of returning to in-person work or staying remote. Addressing this issue requires an equally nuanced and individual approach.

Segmenting Employee Sentiments

One month into the pandemic shutdown, the Martec Group conducted a survey of over 1,200 individuals across various industries, demographics and seniority levels and found that employees working remotely fell into one of four categories: thriving, hopeful, discouraged and trapped. Even early on, only 16% of employees were thriving, while 59% were discouraged or trapped.

Each employee’s experience of working remotely has been unique and understanding the impact it has had on each person’s physical and mental well-being will help companies determine who is ready to return to the office. For example, some parents have been overwhelmed and stressed trying to manage school and work in the home. They may want to get out of the house so they can focus on work at the office. Others have appreciated an improved work-life balance and are dreading going back to the workplace. To maximize personal productivity and job satisfaction and reduce employee turnover, it will be critical to find the right balance for employees going forward.

Analysis of each employee’s remote work experience revealed commonalities within each segment that can help employers in their return-to-work planning:

Thriving employees: Only 16% of employees were identified as “thriving.” The group was overwhelmingly female (72%), skewed toward a younger age range and most often identified as introverted. Some 40% of thriving employees held entry-level positions and commonly expressed appreciation for not having to commute to the office. Individuals in this group have extremely positive emotions about working from home during COVID-19 and are generally content with how their company is handling the situation. Management needs to consider how this group will behave if and when asked to return to regular in-office routines.

Hopeful employees: Again a female-dominated group (62%) with a younger age range, one-quarter of employees were identified as “hopeful.” This group was a mixture of introverts and extroverts and held a range of job roles, with 31% in entry-level positions and 27% in senior positions. This segment has the most positive emotions about their company’s management of the COVID crisis and has the highest rate of company satisfaction. Although they are generally comfortable working from home, they also feel isolated and lonely—they miss their colleagues and the social aspects of working in an office.

Discouraged employees: An even mix of male and female workers, 27% of employees were identified as “discouraged.” Members of this group were predominantly in the age range of 35 to 45 years old and most held positions at the manager level or higher. The most extroverted group, these employees liked not having to commute but missed social interactions at the office. This more senior-level group is having a hard time with COVID-19; their extroverted nature and high stress level lead to negative feelings about working remotely. They feel relatively positive about how their company is handling things, but they illustrate how the current situation is impacting staff at every level.

Trapped employees: At 32% of the employee population, these workers represent the largest of the four groups. The group encompasses both male and female workers, introverts and extroverts, and tends to have more senior job roles, with 35% working as managers. In addition to missing the social aspects of the office, they also miss the structure. This group is experiencing the most negative emotions overall, especially about how their company is handling COVID-19. They have the lowest company satisfaction and mental health and long for office socialization. Online social events will not solve everything, but they could boost this segment’s spirits.

Planning to Reopen

As companies build frameworks for their reopening plans, it is important to take the variety of employee emotions and sentiments into consideration. The solution may not be as simple as giving employees the option to come back to the workplace if they want to. What employees perceive to be the company or team culture could make employees who are hesitant to reengage feel forced, or those who want connection to feel isolated or rejected.

Rather than leaving it up to the employee or instituting a blanket reopening policy, companies will need to develop a multi-tiered plan to maximize potential success. This starts by identifying the different employee segments within the organization. From there, companies need to develop plans that address:

  • Culture and socialization for employees continuing to work remotely
  • Support for parents who want to be back in the office but do not have in-person school or childcare options available
  • Options and support for employees who want to return to the office, but whose teams do not
  • Plans to address ongoing remote work and policies to address decreasing productivity (for example, will an employee who is working remotely be required to return to the office if performance suffers?)

Leadership should start by identifying their own biases and recognizing how their personal feelings could impact company policy. For example, an executive with children who has enjoyed more time at home could have entirely different underlying feelings about returning to the office than an executive who is single and has been working longer hours with no work-life balance, and experiencing greater stress trying to keep employees engaged. Identifying how personal perceptions influence company policies will help everyone come to the table with an open mind and better understand the feelings of coworkers and employees.

The next step is to look at the statistics and determine if they match the employee experience. The Martec Group study found that employees’ remote work satisfaction directly correlated to their level of seniority within a company. Prior to the pandemic, upper-level management had higher rates of good mental health, job satisfaction, job motivation and company satisfaction than lower-level employees. While satisfaction and motivation have decreased among employees across the board, upper-level employees experienced more severe drops, indicating a return to the office could be more important to employees at upper levels. Additionally, mid-tier managers had the lowest satisfaction with their work-from-home experience, which was linked to these employees being more likely to have extroverted personalities and missing the social aspects of the office.

These actions will give a company a baseline for determining the best plan for a return to the office. From there, surveying employees to get feedback on their preferences will provide more insight. Compare responses to the averages. For example, if a mid-level manager—who survey results show may be anxious to return to the office—says they would prefer remote work, a company can speak with the employee to find out why. Perhaps he or she is a caregiver and needs more flex time. Take care in approaching these conversations gently and openly—an individual's reasons may involve deep emotions, personal situations or private information that could result in protected status.

In general, reopening offices will allow employees to return to normal workplace activities that were impossible or not as easy during the pandemic, like popping over a cubicle wall for a quick brainstorm instead of trying to explain an idea via an email, text or video chat. But a one-size-fits-all plan for a return to the workplace does not exist. It will require detailed planning and ongoing adjustments to be successful, just like many companies and employees had to remain flexible and constantly adapt while working remotely. Companies will ultimately either succeed or fail with returning to in-person work based on their efforts to understand employees’ emotions and use them as a foundation for reopening plans.

Jim Durkin is a founding partner at market research firm The Martec Group.