Jun 1, 2021
by Jim Durkin
The experience of living through a pandemic for more than a year has elicited a broad spectrum of reactions. Some people who switched to remote work saw their chaotic mornings and evenings of rushing to and from school, work and extracurricular activities replaced by the opportunity to spend more quality time with family or alone engaged in hobbies. Others, while not enjoying the past 15 months quite as much, found ways to cope with what became their new normal. A number of individuals struggled to adapt the entire time.
Now that many people are vaccinated against COVID-19, employers that did so much to identify ways to optimize remote work find themselves faced with the new challenge of reopening offices. Two of the most complicated and emotional issues will involve determining who will return to in-person work and when that will happen.
Results from a Martec Group survey of more than 1,200 individuals across various industries, demographics and seniority levels may point to solutions. We found that employees developed four distinct outlooks toward working remotely, and we categorized these as thriving, hopeful, discouraged and trapped. Only 16 percent of employees were thriving. Another 59 percent of employees were discouraged or trapped.
Meet the COVID-19 Employee Populations
The four employee groups can be used as a framework for planning to bring employees back to the office. Doing this will require each organization to identify which group an employee falls into. This can be accomplished by conducting a survey, but it must also be done in a manner that does not make employees feel obligated to give certain answers. Once they know what types of employees they are working with, HR leaders and executives can develop a plan based on the common feelings and needs of each employee group.
Employees in this group were overwhelmingly female (72 percent), skewed younger and self-identified as introverted. Also, 40 percent of thriving employees held entry-level positions, and survey respondents in this group commonly expressed appreciation for not having to commute to the office.
These individuals expressed extremely positive emotions about working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they were generally content with how their organization is handling the situation. Management needs to consider how thriving employees will behave when or if they are asked to resume regular in-office routines.
This is another female-dominated group (62 percent) with a younger cohort. One-quarter (25 percent) of survey respondents were categorized as hopeful employees. People in this group were introverts and extroverts, and they hold a range of jobs. Nearly a third (31 percent) are in entry-level positions, but another 27 percent hold senior positions.
Hopeful employees expressed the most positive emotions regarding management, and they had the highest satisfaction with the organization for which they worked. Although they are generally comfortable working from home, hopeful employees admitted to feeling isolated and lonely. In particular, they miss their colleagues and the social aspects of working in an office.
Twenty-seven percent of employees were identified as discouraged and having a hard time with remote work. An even mix of male and female survey respondents, the age range for members of this group is 35-45. Most hold manager-level positions or higher.
Discouraged employees were the most extroverted on balance. They liked not having to commute, but they felt stressed while working remotely and missed social interactions at the office. On the other hand, they felt relatively positive about how their organization was handling things.
Thirty-two percent of survey respondents were categorized as trapped. This group includes a mix of male and female employees, and of introverts and extroverts. They are also experiencing the most negative emotions overall.
Trapped employees tend to hold more-senior roles, with 35 percent of them working as managers. In addition to missing the social aspects of the office, they miss the structure. They are especially concerned about how their organization is handling COVID-19, and they expressed the lowest levels of satisfaction and mental health. While organizing online social events for employees will not solve all problems, doing so could boost the spirits of trapped employees.
Executing a Reopening
As HR leaders and executives build the framework for their reopening plan, it is important to realize the solution may not be as simple as ordering everyone back or giving employees the
option to remain remote. Rather, the organization will benefit from developing a multitiered plan to maximize potential success. Such a plan will address
- Culture and socialization for employees who continue working remotely,
- Support for parents who want to be back in the office but do not have in-person school or childcare options available,
- Strategies and support for managers who want to return to the office but have to manage teams that are split between in-office and remote workers, and
- The organization’s future plans for ongoing remote work and what policies will be if productivity drops (e.g., will an employee who continues working remotely this summer be required to return to the office at some point?).
No one-size-fits-all plan for a successful return to the workplace exists. Successfully reopening will require detailed planning and ongoing adjustments. Organizations that pull off a successful reopening will differ from those that struggle by the degree to which HR leaders and executives understand their employees’ emotions and use that understanding as a foundation for planning to reopen.