Half of employees hesitant to return to the office as pandemic lingers on

A KPMG survey finds many are content working from home, with important caveats.

Most Canadians believe the COVID-19 pandemic is “far from over,” according to a new survey by KPMG Canada, with many expressing hesitations about returning to work as work-from-home models appear to satisfy their short-term needs.

According to the survey, 54% percent of the population is afraid to return to work in light of the contagiousness of the novel coronavirus, and roughly 60% plan to refuse going back if they feel it’s not safe enough. Those findings come from a poll of 1,010 Canadians conducted with online research platform Methodify between July 22 and 24.

To date, the work-from-home model employed by most non-essential businesses, including those with marketing departments, has worked out relatively well, the research found. For example, 76% of Canadians report being satisfied with their work-from-home environment and nearly 60% say they feel more productive.

However, the model has its shortcomings, with the same  proportion of respondents (60%) believing their relationships with co-workers have suffered since public health measures forced many to stay home starting in March. Seven in 10 continue to prefer in-person conversations over other forms of communication, and 76% feel that in-person meetings are “key to successfully building and maintaining long-term business relationships.”

Whether or not Canadians – 94% of which believe the pandemic is “far from over” – will return to shared workspaces in the coming weeks and months depends largely on employers’ ability to make them feel comfortable with the idea. And currently, 54% of respondents are concerned about the prospect of sharing an office. Eighty-three percent worry about catching the virus and transmitting it to loved ones.

According to KPMG, fears are highest among women (59% of whom expressed concern versus 49% of men) and among people in British Columbia (60%) and Ontario (64%). The top concerns are the chance that colleagues could come to work sick or asymptomatic (77%), the idea of sharing common spaces, such meeting and lunch rooms (57%), and workplace air ventilation and circulation (40%). Respondents were the least concerned about the need to wear a mask or to wait for an elevator.

In spite of these concerns, however, many Canadians are still willing to contemplate returning to work. As long as the number of COVID cases remains “relatively low,” as many as 72% of those surveyed would “be okay going back to their physical workplace,” even though they believe a second wave of infections in the fall or winter will once again shut down workplaces.

And, importantly, 82% of respondents said they trust their employer to take the necessary health and safety precautions to keep employees safe.

“The pandemic is forcing every employer in the country to adopt comprehensive protocols and safety measures, and to look at new ways of staying connected to their employees,” said Doron Melnick, partner and acting lead of KPMG’s people and change advisory services practice, in a release outlining the findings.

The consultancy recently unveiled a mobile app aimed at helping organizations protect employees by notifying them of urgent news and required actions, as well as the level of health risk at the office. According to its survey, 60% of Canadians (and 65% of Ontarians) would download a similar app that lets them know how busy officer areas are.

Privacy remains a concern, however, with a little more than a quarter of respondents expressing concern about geo-tracking privacy. KPMG’s app does not geo-track employees.