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Eroding the Office


Solitary worker in an office
Image: Gorodenkoff -
The last nine months have seen dramatic developments in the story of the pandemic and remote work: Brutal caseloads over the winter, followed by vaccine rollouts and the promise of a return to normal, only to see the Delta variant largely wipe out these gains, pushing back large-scale return-to-office toward the end of this year or 2022. And in that time, employees’ attitudes about remote work have remained remarkably stable, with some erosion in support for returning to the office.
That’s the finding reported this week from the latest poll by market researchers Morning Consult, which has been conducting weekly surveys of employees’ attitudes on key questions around remote work. Among their findings:
  • On the popularity of remote working, 81% in the Aug. 14 poll agreed with the statement, “I enjoy working remotely” — exactly the same percentage that held this view in the firm’s Oct. 29, 2020, poll. The only significant spike along the way was in February, when this number hit 87%. Similarly, 70% agreed with the statement “I am more productive working remotely,” up just slightly from 67% in October 2020. Interestingly, those who said they’d be more likely to apply for a job that had a remote work option fell from 76% to 71% during that time.
  • Employees’ comfort in returning to the office was on the rise before the Delta variant emerged. Morning Consult asked respondents, “If your office announced that you could return to your normal workplace starting next week, how comfortable would you feel returning to the office?" Starting at 58% on Oct. 29, 2020, this figure peaked at 73% last month before slipping back to 61% in the most recent poll.
  • Enterprise leaders hoping for an eventual strong return-to-office may be discouraged by the poll’s finding that the statement, “I would like to return to an office as soon as it is safe,” has seen a steady decline in support — 73% agreed with it last October, but that figure had fallen to 62% by the latest survey.
An equally troubling corollary: Those who agreed that they trust their employers “to make the right decision about when our office can return to work” fell from 81% last October to 72% this month. Then again, this may not be a make-or-break issue: The percentage agreeing they “would consider quitting if my employer tried to get me to return to the office before I felt safe,” came in at 53% both in October 2020 and August 2021, with little variation over the intervening months.
Broadly speaking, the poll would seem to support the idea we’re hearing more of, that the longer people stay away from the office, the harder it will become to bring them back. However, the fluctuations in the Morning Consult surveys suggest that this might be more of an incremental change than one that affects the entire workforce. In other words, remote work dragging on into the fall and winter may not kill the office, but could make it smaller — especially combined with hiring practices that may have made more enterprises more virtual over the past year and a half.