Three quarters of workers don't want to go back to the office full-time

Even as businesses start reopening, bringing staff back to work is by no means a given.

Back to the office? Not so fast, say employees
6:02

Although the UK government has taken small steps to reopen offices in an effort to start easing the lockdown rules imposed by the coronavirus crisis, official guidelines still firmly start with the recommendation that you should "work from home if you can". That will sit well with the country's workforce: a strong 75% of UK employees have reported not wanting to go back to the office full-time.

A new report conducted by access-management company Okta among 6,000 office workers across Europe has found that only only one in four UK respondents is keen to go back to the workplace on a five-day-a-week basis. 

Only a minority of employees, however, want a fully remote-working arrangement (17%). The ideal scenario is rather a flexible model, in which staff could work from home on a part-time basis. 

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same--here's what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Jesper Frederiksen, general manager for EMEA at Okta, told ZDNet that the company has been trialing a "dynamic work" initiative since last year, which falls in line with the concept of a hybrid between remote and office work. Before the pandemic, in Okta's London office, employees stayed at home by default, and booked their table via an app if they wanted to come into the office. The company's building, in fact, only provides capacity for about two-thirds of staff.

"Initially, a lot of people remained attached to the workplace, but once they got into it, they realized it worked pretty well," said Frederiksen. "It became a validation of the fact that dynamic work is a good idea. Employees want the flexibility to choose the option that is more suitable for them."

Reduced commuting time, fewer office-related distractions and even, in some cases, the prospect of moving further away from the workplace and into less crowded areas, is clearly winning over many employees, or so it would seem. 

Telecommuting, in fact, is serving some workers well: Okta's research showed that among respondents that reported "thriving" in their new environment, just over half said that their productivity was boosted thanks to additional free time in their day. Fewer distractions at home also led to some workers focusing better on their work.

Working from home, in some cases, is associated with less intense work and lack of supervision; but this view is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Forced to shift their employees to remote working, employers have come round to the fact that telecommuting isn't an excuse to be less productive – at least in the eyes of their staff. Over a third of UK workers said that the perception of employees not doing enough work from home has improved.

It is not just a perception: a recent survey carried out by advisory firm Valoir showed that remote work has only had a small negative impact on productivity in the context of COVID-19. According to the report, on average, work productivity has only decreased by 1% in the last couple of months. The number, however, doubles to 2% for those working from home with children, and jumps to 3% for those working alone.

How well employees are dealing with the sudden shift to remote working is highly dependent on context. Okta's research pointed to a number of respondents saying that they were unable to work well while having to share space and look after children, for example. In big cities like London, cramped flats and the lack of outdoor space can quickly make telecommuting claustrophobic and unproductive. 

In addition, some workers find it harder to achieve a work-life balance when work and life happen in the same space. A separate study carried out by cloud-communications provider 8x8 showed that almost half of British employees were feeling more stressed than when in the office, and found it difficult to "unplug" as the boundary between office and home life blurs thanks to digital overload. A number of respondents (18%) even said that they are putting in longer hours since the move to telecommuting.

"We're all learning, and we will all get better," said Frederiksen. "We certainly have learnt a lot over the past eight weeks. Meetings need to be shorter, you have to allow for breaks, let people go for a walk. We need to structure work differently."

"But crucially, you have to have a tech set-up that means there is absolutely no difference between your productivity and access because of where you are," he continued.

In many ways, the difficulties that some workers have had to adjust to telecommuting is down to a lack of preparedness. Over half of UK employees had never worked from home before the pandemic hit, and some companies struggled to provide them with the appropriate tools to carry out their work efficiently. 

For example, one in three respondents said that their business had not equipped them with the necessary hardware, such as a laptop or a place to put it, and a similar proportion reported that they couldn't access key software at the beginning of the pandemic, and therefore couldn't be productive from home. 

The biggest hurdle, however, has been cultural. While the majority of workers say they are completely comfortable with virtual meetings, most of them also find that communication and collaboration with colleagues has been impacted since the lockdown. Almost 60% of UK workers surveyed by Okta miss having in-person conversations with their co-workers, for example.

While only a minority of employees want to return to the office full-time, an equally small proportion of staff would pick work that is entirely remote. Businesses will have to show flexibility to accommodate the different needs of their employees as workplaces start reopening. 

SEE: Microsoft Teams: How to master remote work beyond the basics

For Okta's Frederiksen, the solution lies in a hybrid between remote and on-premise. He sees the office of the future as as a nice place to go, but for a good reason: you have a meeting, you need advice, and so on. It won't be a place you commute to every day.

Facebook recently told employees that most of them could continue to work from home until the end of the year – an example that has been followed by real-estate company Zillow and insurance provider Sagicor. Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey, has for his part already announced that the company's staff would be given the choice to stick with remote working permanently, even after offices are fully reopened. 

According to Frederiksen, Okta has no plans to go back to the office "anytime soon". Although the company's building might open when the government gives businesses the green light, there will be no expectation that staff return. "The genie is out of the bottle," concluded Frederiksen. "It'll be very hard for organizations to re-impose a five-day-a-week commute. You can't undo this experiment."