The Future of Work: Are employees ready to return to the office?

Megan Keane

Associate Director of Integrated Strategy | dentsu Americas

After increasing optimism through May and June, our latest dentsu Navigator survey indicates growing concern among Americans. While consumers continue to reconnect with much-missed activities and people, the rapidly spreading Delta variant is renewing both health and economic concerns. This month’s edition also dives into a return to the workplace. As many companies begin to go back and employees envision a hybrid future, we find that employee behaviors and routines centered around the workplace are in flux.

Here are some of our key findings related to consumer sentiment:

An uptick in pessimistic outlook suggests rising consumer worry. The share of those who feel the pandemic is headed in the wrong direction increased by 13 points from June to July, rising to almost 40% of respondents.

The Delta variant is of significant concern to consumers. Respondents appear equally concerned about the potential health threat of the variant causing another wave of infections (62%) as they are about the variant causing economic damage by spurring a return to business restrictions and shutdowns (61%). 

Consumers remain eager to pick up the pace of recovery. Since May, the share of consumers ready to “return to normal life immediately” has increased 10 percentage points (from 32% to 42%), while the share of those cautiously “waiting to see whether it is truly safe” has decreased by the same amount.

Participation in activities continues to pick-up, though the rate of rebound varies even between similar activities. We added several new activities to the survey that tease out nuances. For example, roughly the same number of respondents are already comfortable dining outdoors (58%) as dining indoors (56%), but far fewer are comfortable going to a bar (40%). This gap illustrates how setting, intimacy and interaction with others all factor into consumers’ comfort levels.

Over half of Americans are highly concerned about personal finances. 53% are very or extremely concerned about their personal finances, this rises to 61% of Millennials and 60% of Gen X.

Even though much of the U.S. is enjoying reopening, our routines are far from stable - the return to the workplace illustrates this as employer plans meet evolving employee expectations.  Employees anticipate that they may not pick up the same workplace routines that they left.


Here are some of our key findings related to employee sentiment:

Most workers ready to return in a few months, but at a reduced frequency. Among full-time employees who previously worked on-location and shifted to work-from-home during the pandemic, 45% of workers want to return to their workplace immediately; however, 74% will ideally return to the workplace for less than 5 days per week.

The pandemic is reshaping younger generations’ ideas of work. Half of Gen Z do not want to return to the office for at least 30 days. When they do return, one-third want to work 1 day a week or less on-location. Conversely, 66% of Millennials and 64% of Gen X want to return to the workplace immediately or within 2 weeks. However, Gen X is more likely to embrace a full work week on-location while Millennials prefer 2-3 days/week. 

Workers say WFH offers work-life balance, but also report working longer hours. Workers say one of the biggest benefits of work-from-home is work-life balance (42%); However, one of the biggest challenges is working longer hours (34%).

Culture is a big draw of on-location work, but not at the expense of flexibility. On-location work provides better socializing with colleagues (64%) and workplace culture (53%); However, workers are most concerned about a lack of flexibility (44%).

Return to the workplace will shift routines, yet workers will prioritize time for themselves. Much of where workers anticipate spending more time is directly tied to work: commuting (52%) and on personal grooming/beauty routines (43%).  However, they also plan to allocate more time for themselves exercising (51%) and watching TV/entertainment (40%).

Workers plan to redistribute spending away from DIY projects, towards clothing. Works anticipate a return to the workplace will cause them to spend more money on clothing & apparel (59%), dining out (53%), automotive (52%), business travel/commuting (52%) and beauty/personal care (47%, while spending less on home improvement (33%), groceries (31%) and entertainment (29%).


What does this mean for brands?

There is a tension between ‘return to life’ and growing concern. June and the start of summer kicked off a period of relief – a sense that there was momentum to eradicate COVID-19 in the US both from a health perspective and restrictions on business/consumer activity. Now, just over a month later, the Delta variant is threatening to undo that progress. Consumers continue to pick up the pace of recovery; Yet, those who think the pandemic is headed in the wrong direction rising.

Consumers may not be ready to spend at pre-pandemic levels. Although activity levels continue to pick up, our survey finds that half of consumers overall and over 60% of Millennials & Gen X continue to be highly concerned about their personal finances . It is clear consumers are still concerned about their jobs, inflation, and other factors which is not good news for discretionary purchases.  Retail spending had decelerated in recent months after a burst of shopping activity earlier this year (Financial Times, July 2021).

Remain agile as consumer routines continue to shift. As we say at the outset of this report, our lives haven’t changed because of COVID-19 – they are changing and will continue to do so. Workers anticipate that their routines will continue to fluctuate as they head back into the workplace. Marketers will need to stay abreast of changing mindsets – for example, Millennial workers aspire to bring healthy habits back with them – changing behaviors – for example, renewed interest in and spending on work attire – and changing media consumption habits – for example, Gen Z plans to spend more time spent listening to audiobooks.

Return to the workplace may usher in renewed consumer spending. While workers anticipate spending less money on home-centric categories such as entertainment and home improvement, they are shifting spend into categories such as clothing & apparel, beauty/personal care and business travel as they return to work. Marketers should look for opportunities to align their brand or product with a return to workplace routines.


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