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Necessity, Recklessness, and the Right Time to Reopen the Office

COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey April 20-24, 2020

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Two of the many big decisions facing employers at the moment are when remote workers should return to the workplace, and how. The stakes are extremely high because the wrong choice could be either physically or fiscally fatal.

Hence, this week’s pulse survey asked 1,581 employees across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. for their opinion. Primarily, is it too soon to consider going back? Spoiler: The vast majority say yes. But there’s more to it, on both sides.

Not yet!

A full 86% of remote workers believe it’d be a mistake to return immediately. When asked for an appropriate timeframe, responses varied from just a few days to sometime after mid-July.

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That’s nearly 72% who say they shouldn’t return for a least another month. And the most common reasoning:

“People are still getting sick.”

Employees monitor the progress of COVID-19 closely, and they’re aware that the virus is still spreading, even when people show no symptoms. According to one employee, “What if I killed my 58-year-old co-worker? I might have it and simply not know.

Other rationale includes being at high risk of complications if infected, having workspaces that make social distancing difficult, and the necessity of caution in the absence of a cure.

“I have diabetes. I don’t want to go back to work unless I have to. Plus, the government is still saying that people should telecommute.”


“My workplace has workstations that are very close together and 40+ people in one space. At any one time, there are tens of thousands of people on-site from across the U.S. and the world. Inviting us back too soon will have disastrous consequences.”


“I don’t want to undo the good we did by staying home. There is no vaccine, there is no cure, and diseases always come in waves. We need to still be inside for the next wave, or the shelter-in-place policy will have been useless.”

Why not?

Among the 14% of remote workers who feel it’s not too soon to return to the office, those with a spouse, partner, or roommate are 3 times more likely to hold this opinion. Conversely, those with school-aged children are 2.5 times less likely. (If that’s a surprise, remember most schools won’t reconvene until fall, so parents who head back to the office soon would need to find other arrangements for the kids.)

The most frequently given justification for returning ASAP compares COVID-19 to the flu.

“This is in most ways no different than flu season, and we never close during flu season. This scared people and they panicked—and now there is no easy and clean way to back out of this situation. People will get sick, but we get sick during flu season.”

Furthermore, many people in this camp are either skeptical of the general risk or just diehard optimists.

“I think that applying the appropriate industrial safety and hygiene measures, you can return to work and not get COVID-19.”

Common-ground conclusions

Regardless of when employees return to work, they have a number of suggestions for organizations to consider.

First, they want strong, articulated safety measures. For example,

• Temperature monitoring for all employees to enter the building

• Readily accessible hand sanitizer

• Fewer and smaller meetings

Second, they suggest organizations consider a staggered return-to-work schedule rather than have everyone arrive at once. The staggering could occur every couple of weeks with significant monitoring for infections. The moment any cases are found, or increase against baseline data, the staggering stops.

Third, most employees prefer following state and local orders regarding work. However, knowing that those orders can change quickly, they expect organizations to err on the side of caution.

Ultimately, when (and how) to bring remote workers back to the office may not be an easy decision. But the more information you have, and the more it reflects your employees’ opinions, the better that decision will likely be. We at O.C. Tanner sincerely hope our research can help. Because every success or failure has the potential to touch all of us.

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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