Key Findings

  • 1 in 5 employers will allow workers to choose where they want to work
  • 45% of employers say employee productivity decreased while working from home
  • 4 in 10 employers want all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to their workplace

As the U.S. continues its return to normalcy after more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions, the question of what the post-COVID workplace will look like remains a hot topic.

A new survey from Digital.com reveals that employers and employees may not totally be in alignment when it comes to where and how business should operate going forward.

Of the 1500 small business owners we surveyed, 50% say prior to the pandemic, their employees worked on-site all or most of the time. Eighteen percent had a hybrid in-person/remote schedule. For the purposes of the study, the 32% of businesses that had a primarily remote workforce before the pandemic were eliminated from the rest of the survey.

Employers seek end to pandemic-related flexibility

As a result of the pandemic, the majority of employers pivoted. Thirty percent allowed all employees to work from home full-time; 18% opted for a hybrid in-person/remote model for all employees; and 18% had some employees working on-site, while others worked from home.

Thirty-nine percent of the business owners Digital surveyed expect all employees to return to work on-site, full-time in the future. Twenty percent are letting employees choose whether they work on-site, remotely, or a combination of both, while 17% are making hybrid work schedules permanent. Only 10% of employers are planning to switch to an all-remote workforce permanently.

Most consequential to employees is the declaration by 39% of all employers that they are willing to fire workers who refuse to return to their workplace full-time after the pandemic.

According to Digital’s small business expert, Dennis Consorte, this resistance to at-home work will only negatively impact employers going forward.

“COVID-19 lockdowns didn’t create the move towards a remote workforce—it just accelerated the inevitable,” he explains. “Companies that focus on physical location and hours worked will be behind the curve. They should focus instead on the value produced by their extended teams. Otherwise, their most valued employees may seek out remote opportunities elsewhere.”

Employees in IT, finance, and advertising are most likely to be fired for refusing to return to the office

Companies that conducted business entirely in-person before the pandemic are more likely to fire employees than businesses that were already operating on a hybrid remote/in-person model, by a rate of 44% to 26%.

However, 47% of business owners who say they will fire employees for not returning are in white-collar industries, including computer and information technology (17%); business and finance (16%), and advertising and marketing (14%). By comparison, business owners in the retail and food/hospitality sectors combined only accounted for 11% of employers who say they will fire employees who don’t return to work on-site.

When asked to identify the reasons why they feel it is necessary for employees to return to work in-person, either on a full- or part-time basis, 49% of all respondents say it is because most job functions can only be performed in person. This percentage was higher for respondents from the IT, business and finance, and advertising industries.

“Companies were forced to adapt because of the lockdowns,” Consorte observes. “They found ways to keep going despite having limited or no on-site staff. This suggests that a remote, or hybrid environment is often possible. Employees that must perform some job functions in person will of course need to show up at the office on a part-time basis, while they perform the majority of their work off-site. Give your employees some flexibility and trust. They’ll be happier, and you’ll be able to measure results by the quality and quantity of their deliverables.”

Among all employers, 45% also point to better interaction with clients or customers when employees are on-site, while 40% say employees are more productive when they are working in person. Other top reasons cited include better employee collaboration; better communication among employees, and the social aspects of working in the same space.

“It’s true that in-person, human interaction has tremendous value for certain types of teams,” Consorte said. “It’s also true that some clients are impressed by a room full of people. But that’s old-school thinking. Outside of work, people are attached to their mobile devices. They send emails and texts. They have video calls, tag their friends on social media, and swipe right for dates. Remote work is just an extension of this existing trend, and companies that are stuck in an old mindset will be left behind. This will become obvious as Zoomers replace older generations in the workforce. They have spent their entire lives communicating remotely through devices. It’s a natural transition for them to find employment in remote environments.”

45% of employers say employee productivity decreased while working remotely

Another factor employers are taking into consideration when deciding how and where their employees will work post-pandemic is their assessment of whether the advantages of working remotely outweigh the disadvantages.

Digital’s survey found that employers who are mandating that employees return to their offices and workplaces full-time generally have a more unfavorable view of working remotely than those who are letting employees continue to work remotely.

Fifty-nine percent of employers who are making employees return to in-person work say their employees were less productive while working from home, compared to 39% of those letting remote work continue. The bosses in this category also struggled with their own productivity levels; 45% say they are less productive while working from home, compared to 33% of business owners who are continuing with remote work.

“Homes are full of distractions,” Consorte said. “And, some people need the structure of an office environment to feel productive. Those people should look for opportunities to collaborate with people in person. But, they shouldn’t punish others for their own shortcomings. Instead, savvy companies should look for ways to help remote workers to thrive at home. Daily standing meetings and video conferences are great ways to create structure and human connection in a remote environment. Project management platforms are also extremely helpful. Employees can be proactive, too. They should build better habits and break bad ones. Sometimes small environmental changes can make a big difference.”

Other disadvantages to working from home these employers noted include a decline in employee morale; an increase in employee lateness due to oversleeping and distractions; and an increase in miscommunications among staff.

As far as advantages go, the most-cited benefit of working remotely is mitigating fears about catching and spreading COVID-19, with 46% of respondents saying this is a key advantage.

Forty-five percent of business owners who are letting employees continue to work remotely also say that they’ve noticed that the elimination of the morning commute means employees are on-time more often. Thirty-three percent of employers in this group also indicate that employee productivity has improved, and 31% say their own productivity has increased. Other key advantages cited include fewer disputes among employees, an increase in employee morale, and reducing costs by not paying for rent on office space.

42% of employers will require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office

Even if business owners are bringing employees back to their workplaces, it’s not going to be business as usual, at least for the foreseeable future. In order to keep themselves, their employees, and their customers safe from COVID-19, most business owners are considering which mitigation strategies to implement.

When asked which safety protocols they have mandated, or plan to mandate, when employees return, 55% of employers say they are mandating mask-wearing at work, while 52% are also enforcing social distancing between employees.

Nearly half of all respondents, 42%, say they want all employees to be vaccinated. This percentage is even higher, 54%, for employers who are requiring that employees return to their workplaces full-time. Meanwhile, only 35% of employers who are implementing a hybrid work structure are requiring that employees get vaccinated.

However, these employers are the most likely of all respondents to say they are implementing other safety protocols, including limiting the number of staff members on-site, and requiring that employees stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms, or were exposed to the virus.

“Employers should set whatever protocols they feel make sense for their company,” Consorte said. “They should just give their teams enough notice to work through any negative feedback, and time to find new jobs if they find the requirements unreasonable. Be careful though. People who feel like their privacy and personal choices are hindered by an employer may feel resentment. This translates to lower productivity, low morale, and job-seeking behavior. Consider implementing safety protocols that are less invasive and more flexible. Think in terms of rewards, rather than punishments. You may give mask wearers, and people who voluntarily share their vaccination status more paid time off, bonuses, or flexibility. Figure out what you can do to incentivize good behavior, and you’ll have happier. more productive workers.”

Methodology

The data from this report comes from an online survey created and paid for by Digital.com. The survey was administered by online survey platform Pollfish from April 7-8, 2021. We surveyed 1500 American small business owners regarding their experience with remote work during the pandemic, and their plans for continuing remote work, or resuming in-person work post-pandemic.

For the purposes of this study, businesses that had a primarily remote workforce before the pandemic, and those that had primarily in-person workforces during the pandemic, were screened out of the survey.

Full Survey Results

Q1. Please select your industry.

  • Advertising and Marketing: 8%
  • Business and Finance: 10%
  • Computer and Information Technology: 13%
  • Construction: 8%
  • Education: 5%
  • Energy: 2%
  • Engineering: 3%
  • Food and Hospitality: 7%
  • Healthcare: 8%
  • Manufacturing: 5%
  • Media and Communications: 4%
  • Personal Care Services: 6%
  • Retail: 10%
  • Transportation/Logistics: 3%
  • Other: 8%

Q2. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, how did your business operate?

  • Employees worked on-site all or most of the time: 50%
  • Employees worked remotely all or most of the time: 32%
  • Employees had a hybrid on-site/remote work schedule: 18%

Q3. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which scenario best describes how has your business been operating?

  • All employees have been working remotely full-time since the start of the pandemic: 30%
  • All employees have worked on-site throughout the pandemic: 27%
  • All employees are working remotely part-time and on-site part-time: 18%
  • Some employees are working remotely full-time, while others are working on-site full-time: 18%
  • Other: 7%

Q4. Once the pandemic is over, how do you want your business to operate?

  • All employees must return to working on-site full-time: 39%
  • All employees must continue to work remotely full-time: 10%
  • All employees must work a hybrid on-site/remote work schedule: 17%
  • Employees can choose whether to be on-site, remote, or hybrid: 20%
  • Not sure: 9%
  • Other: 5%

Q5. Why do you feel it is necessary for people to return to work in person, either full- or part-time? (Please select all that apply)

  • Most job functions can only be performed in-person: 49%
  • Customer/client interaction is better with on-site employees: 45%
  • Employees are more productive when working on-site: 40%
  • Working on-site encourages employee collaboration: 38%
  • Communication is better when employees are on-site: 37%
  • Processes run more smoothly and efficiently when employees are on-site: 31%
  • My employees and I enjoy the social component of working in-person: 34%
  • Working in-person boosts company morale: 29%
  • None of the above: 4%
  • Other: 5%

Q6. Out of a five-day workweek, how many days per week will employees be permitted to work remotely?

  • 5: 22%
  • 4: 9%
  • 3: 25%
  • 2: 20%
  • 1: 8%
  • 0: 7%
  • Not sure: 9%

Q7. Which, if any, of the following are disadvantages to having employees work remotely? (Please select all that apply)

  • Employee productivity decreased while working remotely: 45%
  • My productivity decreased while working remotely: 36%
  • Employee morale declined: 35%
  • More employees are late because of oversleeping, distractions at home, etc.: 30%
  • Miscommunications among employees have increased: 32%
  • There is less collaboration among employees: 30%
  • Had to invest too much money in software/hardware: 23%
  • Inefficiencies/mistakes led to lost revenue or business: 23%
  • Have to conduct more meetings: 29%
  • Other: 8%
  • None of the above: 6%

Q8. Which, if any, of the following are advantages to having employees work remotely? (Please select all that apply)

  • Employee productivity increased while working remotely: 34%
  • My productivity increased while working remotely: 31%
  • Elimination of commute means employees are on time more often: 41%
  • Ongoing concerns about COVID-19 safety: 46%
  • Fewer disputes among employees: 30%
  • Not paying rent/mortgage for on-site workspace: 24%
  • Processes have become more efficient and streamlined: 20%
  • Employee morale improved: 22%
  • Reduced unnecessary meetings and communications: 24%
  • Other: 7%
  • None of the above: 6%

Q9. Have you, or do you plan to, ask employees for their input about work schedules/locations post-pandemic?

  • Yes: 69%
  • No: 16%
  • Not sure: 15%

Q10. Have you, or do you plan to, fire employees who refuse to return to on-site work full-time?

  • Yes: 39%
  • No: 39%
  • Not sure: 22%

Q11. Going forward, will you be more willing to hire someone who wants to work on-site?

  • Yes: 54%
  • No, work location preference will not be considered in hiring decisions: 27%
  • Not sure: 19%

Q12. Which, if any, of the following safety protocols will you or did you mandate when re-opening your on-site work location? (Please select all that apply)

  • All employees must be vaccinated: 42%
  • Social distancing between employees: 52%
  • Mask mandate: 55%
  • Limited number of on-site employees: 35%
  • Regular COVID tests: 31%
  • Temperature/symptom checks: 43%
  • Hand-washing: 51%
  • Extra cleaning/sanitizing of workspaces: 47%
  • Employees must stay home if they are sick, or have a known COVID exposure: 47%
  • Rearranging layout/workstations to allow for more distance between employees: 29%
  • Other: 9%
  • None of the above: 3%