Hybrid Work Report: Employers Missing the Mark on In-Office Employee Experience

Owl Labs, the first company to build AI-powered, 360-degree video conferencing solutions for hybrid organizations, today released its seventh annual State of Hybrid Work Report, previously known as the State of Remote Work. Owl Labs surveyed 2,000 full-time workers in the United States to uncover the latest trends and perspectives around remote and hybrid work, from polyworking to coffee badging. This year’s report reveals the current return to office divide, with employers putting their energy into calling people back, but missing the mark on what their employees really need from the in-office or hybrid experience.

“The annual return to office power struggle that happens each fall has arrived yet again, as we’re seeing companies beg, entice and force their employees to show their faces around the watercooler – even if it’s against their will,” Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs, said. “People don’t want to spend time and money on frequent office pilgrimages if they’re just going to be sitting on the same video calls they’d be doing in the comfort of their own homes or on tasks that they feel less productive doing from the office. The data shows that many companies have more work to do to provide an attractive, productive and stress-free office environment that makes employees want to gather.”

Employers forcing their workers back to the office have been met with all manner of pushback, from open letters and strikes to “quiet quitting” and actual quitting. More than two in three workers (69%) believe their employers are requiring them to work from the office because of traditional work expectations, especially when 60% of hybrid workers think they’re more productive when they work from home (30% say they are at the same level of productivity working from home). As employees are being called back to the office yet again, many are subtly protesting by complying for as little time as possible. More than half (58%) of hybrid workers are “coffee badging” — showing up to the office for enough time to have a cup of coffee and earn an imaginary badge for it, then going home to do their work. Another 8% said they haven’t been coffee badging but would like to try it.

One reason they’re not staying the full day is because it’s expensive for them to do so. Workers spend an average of $51 per day when they go to the office, which is $408 for hybrid workers (8 days/month) and $1,020 for full-time office workers per month. Meaning in-office, full-time employees spend three times as much as full-time remote workers. This includes a daily average of $16 on lunch, $14 on the commute, $13 on breakfast and coffee, and $8 on parking. Those with pets also spend an average of $20 per day on pet care.

Commuting time is also likely affecting this trend. With 61% of workers spending 30 minutes to 1.5 hours commuting each day, and 20% spending 1.5 to 2 hours, the office experience needs to make the trip worthwhile. Allowing for flexible hours — arriving after morning rush hour and leaving before the evening one — could make a significant impact on total daily time spent in transit.

Despite their hesitations, 94% of workers are willing to return to the office. But the traditional “perks” that once worked for luring people there are no longer sufficient. Employees ultimately want what really matters: saving money. More than one third of hybrid workers (38%) would be more likely to go to the office if their companies paid for their commuting costs, while 28% could be swayed by daycare or eldercare subsidies or on-site alternatives, a likely result of the caregiver shortage. Another 28% think there is such a thing as a free lunch, admitting they could be lured by free or subsidized food and beverages. More than a third (34%) said more privacy in the office, likely for individual calls and video meetings, would help draw them back in.

As companies are cutting costs due to economic uncertainty, those who don’t have a budget for these kinds of benefits might consider loosening up their dress codes — or killing them altogether. Nearly three in four employees (72%) said a flexible or non-existent dress code is important to them. About a quarter of all workers (24%) would be enticed to go to the office if they could wear any clothing or styles they choose, with another quarter (25%) saying they would even take a 15% pay cut for the privilege.

Some of the resistance to the office stems from the advancement of videoconferencing technology and increased familiarity with it. Many people believe that in-person meetings often don’t offer significantly more value than remote or hybrid alternatives. Only about half (54%) of workers say business trips at their organizations have returned to pre-pandemic levels, with employees of larger companies (more than 250 people) being 20% more likely to say this compared to their counterparts at smaller businesses. While the average number of business trips per person in 2023 is 4.5, workers say over half of those trips (2.4) could have been held virtually instead. More than one third of companies (38%) have cut back on business trips because video calls work just as well as in-person meetings for many needs.

While they may be saving time and aggravation at the airport, employees are more stressed than ever, with 56% saying their stress has increased and 35% saying it stayed the same since last year. Full-time office workers are 23 percentage points more likely than remote workers to say their stress levels have gone up in the last year. About 30% say their workload has increased and they can’t keep up, and 19% don’t feel fairly compensated. Other top reasons for worker stress include recession fears (56%), not having the flexibility they want (55%), being forced to be in the office full-time (52%), and not feeling seen and heard in meetings as a remote participant (51%).

Stress can have serious consequences, including disengagement. More than half of workers (52%) say they feel disengaged at work, with one third (31%) citing a decrease in their mental health over the past year as the top reason. Some are choosing to permanently disengage, as almost one third of workers who are currently seeking a new job (30%) are doing it specifically to find a less stressful role.

Another source of stress is the rise of AI and how it may affect job security. About one third of employees (31%) think AI will compete with their jobs, and one in four (23%) are concerned it will steal their jobs altogether. Another third (32%) believe AI will cause ethical issues in their workplaces.

More than half of workers (52%) said their employers have already adopted AI technology to replace or augment employees’ roles. When it comes to technologies that employees want their companies to adopt in the next two years, AI or an AI assistant is at the top of the list, with 48% of workers wanting it. About 44% of employees believe AI will help them do their jobs faster and more effectively, and 35% think it will create new jobs and team growth. Augmented or mixed reality devices are next on the wishlist at 44%, while 38% said they would like to use holograms or avatars in the workplace.

In today’s economic climate, having multiple jobs or side hustles, also known as “polyworking,” is becoming more common, especially among millennials. Almost half (46%) of workers are currently polyworking, while another third (36%) plan on doing so in the future. About 74% of millennials have at least one additional job, which is more than any other generation — in comparison, 13% of Gen Z, 11% of Gen X, and 2% of Boomers are polyworking. Full-time office employees are more than twice as likely (68%) to have one additional job than remote (5%) and hybrid workers (27%). Of those with an additional job, 39% say they need the additional income to cover expenses, while 33% say their additional job is their true passion, but they need to polywork for financial reasons.

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