COVID-19

The Latest Numbers on How Many Workers Will Be Returning to Offices, and How Often

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  • A CNBC survey of top executives in human resources, finance and technology indicates that just under half of companies will use a hybrid work model in the second half of 2021; roughly one-third say their company will be “in person-first.”
  • Employee productivity and employee health & wellness were the most often cited reasons for post-Covid workforce plans; real estate and technology costs were not top factors.
  • The majority of companies will not require employee vaccination.

Americans are heading back to work, and into offices, but how many times a week and how many co-workers will share the in-person?

A new survey from CNBC canvassing executives across top positions at major U.S. companies indicates that the hybrid work model is here to stay, but will fall short of becoming a dominant mode of employment.

Under half (45%) of companies expect to lead with a hybrid workforce model in the second half of 2021, versus roughly one-third (32%) that indicated an "in-person first" employment model will be the situation.

While the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over as a global public health and economic crisis — the death toll has now exceeded 4 million with the Delta variant ravaging countries including India — the U.S. economy and employers have been planning as if the worst is behind the country.

Employee health & wellness (84%) and employee productivity (72%) were the most likely to be described as "very important" to work plans, according to the survey. Those were followed by access to talent (58%) and aligning employees with a corporate mission (58%).

Only 12% of executives cited real estate costs as "very important." Early on in the pandemic, many forecasts cited potential cost savings for employers as a motivating factor for hybrid office plans. But cost, whether real estate or technology, was not among the top factors cited by executives responding to the CNBC survey.

Fifty members of the CNBC Global CFO Council, Technology Executive Council (TEC) and Workforce Executive Council (WEC) responded to this special tri-council survey, which was conducted from June 18-29, 2021.

As companies set post-Covid work plans, employee productivity has been a priority.

"The phenomenon that we've seen in the last 12 months … I call this hyper-productivity gone wrong," Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told CNBC's Tyler Mathisen at at an April CNBC Workforce Executive Council Member Forum. "We're working so much, we're producing, we're producing, we're substituting our commute times with more hours throughout the day and eventually we hit a wall. We are stressed. We are burned out and we start to feel negative about our work, our teams, and our organization."

'Very important' factors in post-pandemic work model

  • Employee health and wellness: 84%
  • Employee productivity: 72%
  • Access to talent: 58%
  • Aligning workforce plan with mission: 58%
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion: 50%
  • Cybersecurity: 38%
  • Real estate/facilities costs: 38%
  • Technology costs: 8%

Source: CNBC tri-council survey, June 2021

No Covid vaccine requirement

In addition, the majority of companies (70%) will not be requiring employee vaccination. However, companies are working with experts to understand how they can better encourage non-vaccinated workers to receive a Covid shot.

Employers can take a "softer approach," Katy Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently told the CNBC Workforce Executive Council, by emphasizing vaccines belong to employees, based on the findings from psychological research that people more highly value something they feel is their own. Reserving vaccine appointments can also help as convenience does play a role in at least some vaccine hesitation.

"Just communicating that a vaccine is reserved for you can increase vaccination rates substantially at very little cost," Milkman said. 

Productivity and hybrid work

Other recent research shows hybrid is the preferred model, with a Mercer survey from May that found 70% of companies saying a blend of in-person and remote working will be the new normal. Virtual-first or a fully remote model was cited by only 6% of employers in the Mercer research, and was similarly low in the CNBC survey,

"For many employers, despite the stressors of Covid, they have experienced increases in engagement and productivity," said Lauren Mason, principal in Mercer's career business. "Continuing to offer flexibility on a permanent basis is viewed as a way to sustain high levels of engagement and productivity."

There remain concerns among top work experts over whether hybrid work models will succeed, with some arguing that hybrid can be worse than all-remote, and in-person office plans potentially conceived in ways that are no better. There also have been concerns that "pandemic fatigue" has hurt remote worker productivity, but employee productivity remains high across these companies, according to the survey. Only 16% saying worker productivity has decreased compared to earlier in the pandemic. Productivity has plateaued for many employers, though, with 44% saying it is about the same as earlier during Covid-19, and only 14% saying it has increased "a lot."

Most companies will be adding remote-only positions regardless of exact workforce model, with 54% saying that "some" of the positions they currently have open are remote; 10% said "most" open positions are remote.

"There's likely a mismatch between what employers are planning to offer and what employees expect when it comes to full-time remote working," Mason said. "Given the extremely competitive talent market and the heightened voluntary turnover that many employers are experiencing, it is imperative employers evaluate their plans, and ensure they balance both the needs of their workforce with the needs of the business."

Employer-employee divide

The CNBC survey found a small difference between how highly executives rate the importance of being able to work with others in-person, and how they assess their own workers on this question. The majority of executives (64%) say they value being able to work with others in-person "a lot." Only 4% said they value it only "a little" or "not at all." When asked how highly their workers value this work situation, 58% described it as "a lot."

That is not a surprise to Mercer's Mason, who said various studies have shown consistent differences between leaders' perceptions of their employees' workplace preferences versus those of the employees themselves. She says employees often place a much higher value on flexibility, and that may continue to create some tension. Mercer's recent survey work shows that more hybrid work models (29%) will allow remote work 1 to 2 days a week, with less (17%) making the remote option the majority of days, as many as 3 to 4 days a week.

A "one size fits all" approach to hybrid will not work for the vast majority of organizations, Mason said, adding that the type of work performed by the employee is likely to drive the type of flexibility they are eligible for going forward. Workers in retail, hospitality and manufacturing, or facilities workers, for example, will not have a choice. But for the majority of employees who have worked remotely throughout the pandemic, they are likely to have an opportunity to continue work remotely, with the number of telecommuting days dependent on their role, and how essential issues like collaboration, relationship development and networking are to their role and performance level.

For the executive set, one old work normal is coming back: business travel. Despite some doomsday prognostications that it would disappear in a new corporate normal, more than one-third (36%) of executives surveyed by CNBC say they have resumed business travel, while another 44% say they will be resuming travel before the end of the year.

On Thursday, November 12, CNBC is hosting its first annual Workforce Executive Council summit for influential CHROs and Chief Diversity Officers from 1-4 p.m. ET. Apply to the WEC to attend at www.cnbccouncils.com/wec.

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