The conditions necessary for a successful return to work

Dec 01 2020

Studies show that after working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees overwhelmingly want to go back to the office—at least one day a week. With positive vaccine trials increasing the chance that there will soon be a viable vaccine, businesses now have an opportunity to plan for the future by considering what a flexible back-to-the-office plan could look like. They can learn from the experiences of those who had the opportunity to return to the workplace in the fall in order to devise an effective strategy. 

For business leaders, the most crucial factor for success in bringing people back to the workplace is instilling confidence in their employees and gaining their acceptance. But what makes an employee feel safe and productive when they return to the office? This study examines the policies and conditions that impact an employee’s performance after returning to the workplace, and highlights the strongest approaches businesses can take in making the return a success.

Another wave of COVID-19 has forced many employees worldwide back to working from home. For businesses, understanding and applying the best policies for their eventual return to the workplace will ensure improved employee performance and business success. The findings from this survey can help businesses plan in advance so that they can be prepared for the future, especially once vaccines are widely distributed.

Survey methodology

In October 2020, WeWork, in partnership with brightspot strategy, a research and strategy firm, conducted a blind survey that was representative of professional office employees across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe to determine the conditions that made employees more satisfied and productive when they returned to the office after working from home. It was designed as a blind survey, with no reference to WeWork or assessment of coworking.

Key findings

  • Those who returned to the office four to five days a week reported a 54 percent increase in morale compared to those working from home. Of all employees who returned to the office anywhere from one to five days, there was an over 40 percent rise in morale. 
  • Since returning to the workplace, employees reported improvement across all metrics as compared to those working from home. They saw a 3 percent rise in individual productivity, 6 percent rise in collaborative productivity, 4 percent increase in personal well-being, and 8 percent increase in experience of company culture. 
  • Those who said “working from home was not effective” saw an 18 percent rise in their experience of company culture back in the office. Conversely, those who said they had “no reason to return” saw no change or a drop in performance as compared to those working from home.
  • The impact of a company providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer had the most positive impact on self-reported employee experience of company culture, improving 11 percent. A work environment judged to be moderate to very safe produced a 4 percent improvement in individual productivity, whereas one judged unsafe produced a 9 percent drop in individual productivity. 
  • Employees who thought their company’s handling of returning to the workplace was effective reported a 7 percent improvement in collaborative productivity and 12 percent improvement in experience of company culture. Company handling judged ineffective produced a 4 percent drop in performance of both collaborative productivity and company culture.

An employee’s ability to work productively, achieve personal satisfaction, and view their company positively are critical to business success. Individuals who are not engaged in their work have 37 percent higher absenteeism and 18 percent lower productivity. Teams that are unable to collaborate or communicate effectively result in negative interpersonal interactions, drop in innovation, and consequent revenue and profit losses. A workplace with unengaged employees, poor teamwork, and communication challenges leads to a toxic culture that impacts employers through high turnover—an estimated $223 billion over the past five years for U.S. companies.