Commercial Real Estate, Clutch Report

Return to Work During COVID-19: How Offices Can Prepare For Their Employees

September 18, 2020

by Shelby Jordan

While over one-third of the U.S. workforce has returned to work, the majority are still split on the best approach to reopen offices while preventing the spread of COVID-19. Our survey of 400 workers shows one consistency, though — safety is top of mind for both employers and their staff. 

Your daily routine probably looked different in February. 

Public transportation to your office, a quick conversation with the building staff, a crowded elevator ride to your floor, a handshake to greet your colleague from across the hall, a short morning chat at the communal coffee pot, and several meetings with your team, which were split by a lunch break with some coworkers in the office common area. 

Then, in mid-March, you received an announcement from your company — remote work until further notice. 

Now, you wake up, maybe go for a jog, make yourself a pot of coffee, and sit down at your desk – if you’ve got one. You open your laptop and send a few greeting messages, before getting started on the day's work. You have several meetings over Zoom and eat lunch in your kitchen. At the end of the day, you close your laptop and start dinner.

Maybe you’re enjoying the freedom you have while working remotely, or maybe you’re stressed because you find it hard to stay focused. Either way, you’ve considered the pros and cons of eventually returning to the office. 

We’re nearly six months into the coronavirus pandemic, and states across the country are starting to reopen. Some businesses are even transitioning back to in-office work. 

Employees are starting to ask themselves: Is now the right time to go back? Is it safe? Do I even want to return to the office?

Employers also are weighing their options. How do we reopen the office safely? Is it really necessary to return to an in-office culture? What do my employees prefer?

For answers, Clutch surveyed 400 people across the United States about their experience working remotely and their thoughts on returning to the office. 

We found that opinions vary greatly. Each individual is in a unique situation with distinct preferences about when and how to get back to business as usual. 

Therefore, the best thing that companies can do to create a safe office environment is to listen to their employees. 

Our Findings

  • 39% of workers have returned to their company’s private office space or a shared coworking space. 
  • Of the 61% of employees that are still working remotely, preferences for when to return to the office vary: 19% want to return as soon as possible; 15% want to return after September 2020; 13% would prefer to wait until 2021, and 15% don’t want to return at all. 
  • Despite regional differences, 29% of workers rank mask requirements as the most important precaution their company should implement as employees return to the office. 
  • 82% of workers agree that their employers should take concrete steps to ensure employee safety in the workplace.
  • 91% of companies are already taking action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their office spaces. 

Over One-Third of Employees Have Returned to the Office

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. in mid-March, 88% of workers were concerned about the spread of the virus.

In the months since, many companies chose to transition to remote work. A Gallup poll found that 63% of employees have worked from home as a result of COVID-19.

As states across the country begin to reopen their economies, businesses are preparing for their employees to return to the office. 

We found that 39% of the workforce has already returned to their office or a coworking space in some capacity. 

39% of U.S. workers have returned to their office space.

CNBC has tracked the reopening plans of some prominent companies across industries. 

  • The Dallas Cowboys have reopened some of their offices in preparation for the 2020 football season. They are following local guidelines and safety recommendations. 
  • The New York Stock Exchange is operating at 25% capacity and monitoring employee transportation to and from the office. 
  • Mastercard offices are limited to 30% their normal capacity, while still allowing employees to elect to stay home.
  • Facebook, Shopify, and Slack are taking this opportunity to rethink their policies around remote work and commit to more flexible offerings in the future. 

Coworking spaces like WeWork, Impact Hub, and MakeOffices are following suit and reopening with limited capacity and an abundance of precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing regulations, sanitation stations, frequent cleaning, and more spacious layouts are common throughout. 

Natalya Bucuy, content marketer at LiveHelpNow, LLC, a customer service software company, is doing the same. 

“Our office building requires masks worn in the hallways of the building,” she said. “Within our company’s office space, there is plenty of space for social distancing.”

Heinrich Long goes one step further. The Privacy Expert at online security company Restore Privacy explained that employees are still staying at home if possible, but for those coming to the office, they take temperatures at the beginning of every day, enforce social distancing and mask wearing, and encourage hand washing and using hand sanitizer.

The common thread throughout these examples is that workplace safety is top of mind. 

Other businesses beginning to reopen can look to these companies for guidance, but they should ultimately consult their employees to identify the best approach. 

Opinions Are Split on When to Come Back to Work

Currently, about 6 out of every 10 workers are still remote. When asked about their preferred timeline for returning to the office, opinions varied greatly. 

Our survey found:

  • 19% of workers want to go back to the office as soon as possible
  • 15% would prefer to return after September of this year
  • 13% would like to wait until 2021
  • 15% don’t want to return at all

The percentage of employees who would go back to work tomorrow is nearly the same as the group that would prefer never to go back. 

Graph of employee preferences on when to return to work

These trends are consistent across age and region, meaning generation and geography don’t have a major influence on employees’ perspectives. Rather, it suggests that preferences are dependent on each individual’s unique situation. 

There are many factors to consider. For a lot of people, safety is the top concern. For working parents, it may be difficult to focus with kids in the house. Some employees may feel more productive out of the office, while others find it more distracting. Remote work also lends itself to additional flexibility and a stable work-life balance, which works for some but not others. 

Amy McWaters has found a way to navigate the blurring lines of her personal and professional lives. The CEO of The Hamper Emporium, a gift basket company, describes her new routine as “living at work” rather than “working from home” — and the secret is scheduling. 

“I create a schedule for all areas of my life and stick to it as best as I can,” she said, noting that inevitably, there are interruptions that require her to adjust her plans. 

“If nothing else, 2020 has certainly taught me how to pivot!” McWaters said.

“If nothing else, 2020 has certainly taught me how to pivot!”

Bucuy enjoys the new flexibility in her daily schedule. 

“When I work from home, I can complete my creative tasks when I feel most creative instead of being confined to specific hours,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to step outside those boundaries.”

On the other hand, Long falls into the group of employees that would prefer to go back to the office as soon as possible. 

“If it were up to me, I would have never left the office because my productivity is not ideal at home,” he said, welcoming the news that Restore Privacy is taking steps to reopen. 

McWaters’ team at The Hamper Emporium has had an overwhelmingly positive experience with its transition to remote work, and because of her team’s steady productivity, she is in no rush to get her employees back in the office. 

Looking at these accounts, it’s clear that each individual feels differently. An employee's desire to return to the office is completely dependent on her personal situation. 

As an employer, it’s best to listen to your team and create a reopening plan that meets its specific needs. 

Employees Believe Masks Are Essential to a Safe Return to the Office

Among all of these opinions about returning to work, one clear point of agreement for employees is wearing face coverings in the office. 

To control the spread of COVID-19, the CDC currently recommends that people wear cloth face masks while in public or around others outside of their household.

Currently, over 30 states across the U.S. have followed suit and issued regulations that require masks to be worn in public places — including office buildings. 

While different regions and areas are handling masks differently, our survey found that nearly a third of workers (29%) agree that face covering mandates are the most important step offices should take in creating a safe office environment during the pandemic. 

Map of face mask popularity in different regions of the Unite States

Mask requirements are not only popular but also one of the simplest ways to limit the spread of the virus. They are relatively low-cost and practical.

Is it realistic to ask your employees to wear a mask the entire time they are in the office?

For Long, the answer is yes. The Privacy Expert plans to require his team to wear masks whenever in the office. 

“It’s the right thing to do to keep everyone safe and do our part to stop the out-of-control spread of the virus,” Long said. 

"It’s the right thing to do to keep everyone safe and do our part to stop the out-of-control spread of the virus."

On the other hand, Bucuy isn’t as sure, explaining that expecting employees to keep their mask on throughout the day is a bit unrealistic. She does agree, though, that it’s extremely important to implement some mask requirements.

“Perhaps requiring a mask in common areas and allowing employees to decide whether or not to wear them at their desks could be a good compromise,” she said.

Other employers believe that face coverings are important but more effective when paired with other precautionary measures — like Dr. Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of Phone2Action, a digital advocacy group.

She plans to require her team to wear masks only in common spaces or when walking from one place to another. 

“All desks have been separated to accommodate social distancing,” she said, explaining that the updated office layout, in tandem with face masks, will create a comfortable and safe environment for her employees. 

GetVoIP CEO Reuben Yonatan feels similarly.

“Not only will I require my employees to wear masks in the office, I will make sure we implement other safety precautions as well,” Yonatan said. “We will rearrange the office layout to account for social distancing and improve our office hygiene.”

For Yonatan and many other employers, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. 

“As we rebuild, I want my workforce to be as productive as possible,” he said. 

"As we rebuild, I want my workforce to be as productive as possible."

Overall, face covering regulations are popular among employees returning to the office, and they're a simple way for companies to show their team that safety is a priority.

Individual businesses should communicate with their employees to identify the policies that make the most sense within their specific work environment. 

Safety Is the Top Priority for Employees

Nearly 90% of U.S. workers (82%) want to see their employers take action to create a safe office environment as they reopen.

Masks aside, there are a handful of other precautions that workers would like to see their employers implement.

Graph of safety precautions employees want from their companies before returning to work.

For 16% of workers, social distancing guidelines are the most important precaution businesses should follow. 

Guidance from the CDC supports this claim. When employees return to the office, it’s best that they pass on the customary handshakes and packed meeting rooms in favor of verbal greetings and spread-out seating arrangements. 

Improved hygiene practices rank as most important for 12% of employees.

Office Hygiene Best Practices

  • Set up accessible sanitation stations throughout the office
  • Encourage hand washing
  • Schedule more frequent janitorial services
  • Update the building ventilation systems

Just over 1 in 10  employees (11%) call for frequent health checks as offices begin to reopen. This could create a safer office environment by catching the symptoms of COVID-19 before the virus has a chance to spread throughout a team.

Updated office layouts (9%) and returning to work in shifts (6%) also topped the list for some. Both of these measures work to limit the number of times employees would cross paths in general. 

Commercial real estate companies are sharing ideas for workplace designs in a post-COVID office environment.

Visual representation of the Six Feet Office concept

Source: Cushman & Wakefield

Cushman & Wakefield has recently introduced the Six Feet Office concept, that outlines six guidelines for companies as they prepare their offices for their staff.

However, above all of these precautions, 18% of workers chose none of the above. 

We reached out to a few specialists in the healthcare and HR fields for some help interpreting this data.

Robin Throckmorton, president of strategic HR inc., an HR outsourcing agency, suggested that these respondents are just not looking to return to the office due to increased productivity while remote or other outside factors. 

“While these steps may be a good solution to help businesses safely return to work, they are just not viable for all,” Throckmorton said. 

It’s important for employers and HR professionals to understand that each individual on their team is facing a unique situation and therefore has distinct needs and preferences when it comes to returning to the office. 

The 18% might have other priorities on their mind: Transportation or childcare accommodations, office capacity limits, and daily temperature checks are just a few possibilities. 

For this reason, Chris Riley of USA Rx, a healthcare company, believes that communication is the key to navigating this situation. 

“An active dialogue with your team is the most important first step for getting back into the office,” Riley said.

"An active dialogue with your team is the most important first step for getting back into the office."

Riley also suggested a system using wristbands. Employees back in the office could choose to wear either a red, yellow, or green band that signals their comfort with in-office interactions — green for generally comfortable and red for worried. This would allow employees to avoid personal conversations with teammates and still respect individual needs. 

The same approach to reopening offices isn’t going to work for each employee and each company, so it’s important to start by speaking with your team. Understand what your company can do to create a safe and comfortable workplace. 

Companies Are Taking Action

The good news is 9 out of 10 companies are already taking some of these steps to create a safe environment for their employees.

Our survey found that 91% of employers have implemented at least one of the precautionary measures discussed above. The top three most common measures are:

  • Social distance mandates (71%)
  • Face covering requirements (60%)
  • Improved hygiene practices (60%)

Popular safety precautions companies are taking to prepare for staff to return to the office

By following CDC guidelines and gathering input from their employees, companies are able to create a targeted reopening plan that fits unique needs.

For example, the LiveHelpNow, LLC office is requiring masks in all hallways and social distancing within individual workspaces. 

This approach is working for Bucuy and her teammates. “In general, I think my company is doing a great job balancing flexibility and safety of all employees,” she said.

McWaters is planning for her employees to return to The Hamper Emporium. 

She knows that her employees want to see each other and enjoy the benefits of in-office camaraderie, but there are safety concerns to consider.

“Unfortunately, employees couldn’t congregate indoors for lunch or coffee breaks, though mask-free, socially distant dining would be encouraged in outdoor spaces,” McWaters said. 

Other companies, like Phone2Action, have laid out more extensive guidelines for reopening. 

Dr. Hartsock credits her office manager and operations team for their plans.

“They have installed hand sanitizers throughout the office, separated desks, created signs to limit capacity in all meeting rooms, installed one-directional signs for hallways, and created policies for common areas,” she said. “We also share a building with other companies and need to coordinate with the landlord to develop guidelines for the use of elevators and common areas.”

Phone2Action is currently working through accomodations for employees that use public transportation or need child care assistance. 

There are numerous factors to consider when creating your company’s reopening plan, and clearly, what works for some teams won’t work for others. 

With open dialogue between management and their employees, companies can identify the precautions necessary to create a safe and comfortable environment for their specific team. 

Listen to Your Employees

After nearly six month of remote work, companies across the country are taking initial steps to prepare for their employees to return to the office. 

While nearly 40% of workers have already made the transition back into their private office or a coworking space, the rest of the workforce is divided on when they would prefer to return. 

Employees are weighing the pros and cons of going back to work as normal. Each individual is in a unique situation, and each has distinct preferences about returning to work.

However, nearly one-third of the workforce agrees that in-office mask regulations are necessary to create a safe work environment. 

Other common requests from employees are social distancing mandates, improved hygiene practices, frequent health checks, updated office layouts, and staggered commutes to the office. 

While these actions are a good place to start, employers should also consider measures more specific to their team’s needs, like daily temperature checks, office capacity limits, or accommodations for transportation and childcare. 

As companies navigate their transition back to business as usual, they should consult their employees to understand their personal preferences and create a plan that makes their team feel both secure and comfortable. 

While we continue to navigate the uncharted territory of working through a pandemic, the safer employees feel in their office, the more productive they will be.

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