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Remote Workers Begin to Return, Fearfully

COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey: May 4-8, 2020

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For better or worse or both, it’s happening: Authorities are trading stay-at-home orders for face masks, and employers are recalling staff to resume operations in the workplace. But without a vaccine, the coronavirus continues to spread. And while it does, the majority of workers do not feel safe.

If you’ve followed our most recent reports, this sentiment is no surprise. A near consensus of frontline and remote employees (86.5% as of last week) has said it’s too soon to reopen offices. This week’s pulse survey of 1,436 workers across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. takes a closer look at the reluctance, the reasons for it, and the damage returning now may do to company cultures.

Far more concern than comfort

Nearly 67% of both remote and non-remote employees are worried about reuniting prematurely. Among remote workers who have returned, 76% feel it was at least two weeks too early (40% say a month).

How does that affect key culture metrics? Not well. When employees rejoined organizations that they believed were unprepared:

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Of course, outliers persist. For the 9% of remote workers who feel the timing of their return was appropriate, we see predictably positive results:

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Advice from the front of the line

Qualitative responses from those who’ve returned to the workplace yielded four common themes, all of which are relevant to organizations at any stage of getting back up to speed.


Consider soliciting volunteers to return on a timeframe or take on roles that might make some people uncomfortable. Many employees say they had coworkers who were willing to return to the office or work more dangerous shifts. One example:

“My company should have asked for volunteers. I wouldn’t have because I’m older and more at risk, but several of my team said they would go back to work. Instead, I’m working while they are still at home.”


Week over week, the pulse surveys show an alarming decrease in safety practices (14.7%) with quotes to support, such as:

“I’d be more comfortable going back to the office if my organization was clear on what social distancing requirements are in place, expectations around mask wearage, and clean workspaces. Unfortunately, my organization hasn’t done that, laid off our cleaning staff, and still is recalling people.”


The guidance coming from federal, state, and local leaders is far from in sync. Employees appear to strongly favor proximity in deciding whom to follow.

“I’m not sure about our governor, but my mayor says we need to be more careful. Open slower and be safer. My boss needs to listen to that.”

“We shouldn’t trust what the federal government has to say. They screwed up. Our mayor has our backs, and my company needs to listen to that guidance.”


There’s a constant plea to protect the workplace by identifying who’s infected and who isn’t.

“We need more testing. And my company should be working with government to test everyone that returns to work. The people that have the virus but don’t have symptoms could kill us all.”

“We still aren’t testing enough. Even all the news channels say that. Facebook says that. Twitter says that. When everything says we aren’t doing enough, we probably aren’t.”

Stay tuned to our COVID-19 weekly culture pulse surveys for insights that will help your organization to weather the storm.

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