Just 28% of Americans expect to return to the workplace before 2021

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Just 28% of Americans say they already have or expect to return to workplaces before the end of the year, indicating the coronavirus pandemic is making remote work more mainstream, a Conference Board survey showed Thursday.

Nearly one-third of respondents said they would be uncomfortable getting back to offices, shops and factories, while half said their greatest concern was contracting the disease at work, according to the Sept. 16-25 online survey of more than 1,100 workers. Only 17% of employees said they were very comfortable or even wanted to return.

The coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S., with 34 states recording higher seven-day averages of new cases compared with a month ago. While progress is being made on a vaccine, it will be months before it’s available to the general public. Even when it is ready, the Conference Board’s survey showed just 7% expect a return to their workplace.

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“For knowledge workers and others where remote working is an option, you’re going to see more of a remote or hybrid working arrangement become the standard way,” said Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at the Conference Board.

A cultural shift to working from home and the pause or stop in business reopenings have upended the commercial real estate market. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren warned that a resurgence in the virus could lead to troubles in the financial sector via commerical real estate.

The “commercial real estate sector is going to be impacted in the long term as we now need much less space for offices, retail, and probably higher education,” said Gad Levanon, head of the Conference Board Labor Markets Institute.

The Conference Board’s survey echoed with a recent poll of company executives by Cisco Systems. More than half plan to downsize their offices as remote working will become commonplace after the pandemic subsides, according to the Cisco survey.

The Conference Board survey also showed that lower-ranking employees are more concerned about returning. Some 20% of rank-and-file workers and 21% of front-line managers indicated they feel pressure to return in order to keep their jobs, compared with just 4% of executives. Individual contributors are also the least comfortable coming back to job sites.

Some 29% of respondents said they had little faith that their colleagues would adhere to safety protocols and guidelines upon return. One-third questioned the wisdom of going back to workplaces because they said productivity has remained high when working remotely, the survey showed.

Bloomberg News
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