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Top 3 Employee Concerns about the Post-Pandemic Office

August 24, 2020

After months of working from home, organizations are developing plans to solidify remote work or bring employees back to the office. The plans of large companies like Twitter and Microsoft have attracted widespread media attention, but there’s been comparatively little coverage of how small and mid-size companies are returning to work.

To remedy that, we reached out to thousands of our customers about their experiences working from home and their expectations around returning to work. Seventy-five percent of the survey respondents work for organizations with fewer than 250 employees.

Not surprisingly, most respondents aren’t sure when they’ll feel comfortable going back to the office. Below, we outline employees’ top concerns and offer strategies for employers to mitigate them.

1. Employees Are Concerned about Common Spaces

Shared spaces and social distancing don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. Nearly one-third of respondents to our survey said they thought social distancing would be difficult in shared spaces like cafés and conference rooms. Three in four respondents said they would only use meeting rooms when required to do so -- or if employers de-densified them by removing seating.

Shared spaces play a significant role in a company’s culture by fostering social interaction. Employers can make sure everyone feels safe in common spaces with these tips:

  • Use physical barriers, like movable walls and mobile screens, to delineate space in cafés and conference rooms. In addition, banks of personal lockers or storage incorporated into open plan office areas can act as barriers and help direct traffic flow.
  • Remove seating or use large-scale pieces to allow employees to maintain six feet of distance from each other.

2. Employees Fear Interacting with Sick Colleagues

Nearly 30 percent of respondents cited presenteeism, or coworkers coming into the office while sick, as one of their top concerns about the return to work.

Employers can help workers feel more comfortable in an office among colleagues by empowering them to take control of their workspace. A few tips:

  • Install privacy screens at each workstation that employees can pull up or push down to define their personal space on their terms.

Employers may also consider extending flexible work policies to reduce presenteeism and boost employee wellness and morale. Just 15 percent of respondents’ companies had remote work policies in place before the pandemic. Sixty-two percent said their employer reacted swiftly to implement them. More than half of respondents said they’d like remote work to remain a permanent option.

3. Employees Are Apprehensive about Air Quality and Cleaning Standards

Somewhat surprisingly, the top employee concern was indoor air quality. Forty percent of respondents expressed concern. In addition, nearly one-third of respondents had questions about their employer’s cleaning protocols.

Employers can ease these anxieties by communicating clearly and immediately about any changes to their HVAC systems or sanitation protocol. They can also consider these design strategies:

  • Use glass architectural walls to cordon off parts of an open office without sacrificing natural light or cleanability.
  • Place privacy pods in open spaces. Our WiggleRoom pods are equipped with a motion-activated ceiling fan that refreshes the pod’s air every 60 seconds.
  • Set up sanitation stations at entry points. Provide easy access to hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies near entrances and exits by hanging shelves or holders on mobile screens.

The New Normal Isn’t Normal

More than eight in 10 respondents said they were able to seamlessly conduct business during lockdown, thanks to their organization’s ability to quickly adapt.

Employers nationwide will have to keep that flexible mindset. No one knows what the workplace will look like one, three or six months from now. But, we hope our survey research will help address employees’ and clients’ concerns -- or inspire employers to ask them for their thoughts.

Click to learn more about our ideas and options for safely returning to work. 

by Jonathan Webb  Director - Workplace

Jonathan Webb leads KI’s strategic business unit, serving the business market. Jonathan studies workplace trends, uncovers product gaps and develops solutions with the KI team. Jonathan takes part in advanced workplace strategies and documents his findings through white papers, articles and other publications. His recent publications, Understanding Active Design: The Rise of Human Sustainability and Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design, have put Jonathan in the media spotlight. Partnering with thought leaders like AECOM, his publications cover diverse subjects including sit/stand benefits, designing training environments and defining work styles. Jonathan holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh School of Business and is a LEED accredited professional.

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