Owl Labs released new survey data about the state of today’s workplace

Survey of 500 U.S. Knowledge Workers Uncovers Cyclical RTO Pushes, “Shadow Management” in Response to Top-Down Policies, and the Reasons Workers Are Still Avoiding the Office

Owl Labs

Owl Labs, the first company to build AI-powered, 360-degree video conferencing solutions for hybrid organizations, today released new survey data about the state of today’s workplace, four years after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Surveying more than 500 full-time knowledge workers across the United States after the annual New Year return to office (RTO) push, the data provides a pulse check on the current state of hybrid work, demonstrating that many employers are grappling with a desire to return to pre-pandemic policies despite employee resistance to attempts to turn back the clock.

The report explores how seasonal return-to-office cycles, unequal policies and the resulting “shadow management,” and tensions around work styles are still fueling discord. It also examines what’s keeping workers away from the office – from neurodivergence, disabilities and health conditions that cause challenges with on-site work to classic pet peeves.

“Our new survey data found that the modern workplace is still full of conflict and tension around work styles – between employers and workers, company leaders and team managers, and peers,” said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs. “As we pass the fourth anniversary of when the pandemic reached the U.S., the push and pull of annual return-to-office mandate cycles and the challenges of finding balance in the nebulous world of hybrid work still continue. The reality is that offices may never return to how they were pre-pandemic – although many employers haven’t yet given up on trying to turn back the clock, no matter how much discord it can cause among workers.”

Workers Feel Pressured By Employers’ Cyclical RTO Pushes Twice a Year

Nearly two-thirds of hybrid workers (61%) have felt pressured by their employers to go into the office over the past three years.

Over the past few years, seasonal RTO mandate trend cycles have emerged, with workers feeling more pressure from their employers to be on-site in the fall and winter months. Back-to-school season coincides with peak “back to office” time as well, with September being the most popular month for employers to mount RTO campaigns – 17% of hybrid workers feel more pressure when summer and Q3 come to an end. The second most popular time for RTO is the New Year, with 13% of hybrid workers feeling stronger pushes in January.

Employees Say Workplace Policies Aren’t Applied Equally to Everyone

Strict RTO mandates that come from the top, including C-suite executives and human resources teams, have triggered a trend of “shadow management,” where team leaders grant more flexibility to the employees who report to them – regardless of what the official company policy is – to retain the productive, happy workers they need. Nearly half of employees (41%) say their employers’ policies about where and when people work are not applied equally across the company.

Workers feel the following groups tend to have more flexibility than others:

  • Certain departments/teams (15% of workers say they have more flexibility than others) or specific office locations (7%)
  • Senior executives (10%) and their favorite employees (5%)
  • People with longer tenure at the company (8%)

As everyone has very different needs and styles, hybrid work is not “one-size-fits-all” – which means it inherently involves more nuance. Employers need to be more intentional about the equitability of their policies, with so many different formats and degrees of hybrid work.

A Customized Approach to Flexibility Works for Some But Breeds Resentment Among Others

“One-size-fits-one” hybrid workplaces are satisfactory for many people, with more than 1 in 4 workers (28%) minding their own business and saying they don’t care if their coworkers have more flexibility because it doesn’t affect them. Another quarter of workers (24%) say they are even supportive and happy for their colleagues who have more flexibility than they do.

However, some companies’ unclear or unequal policies are not well-received by others, breeding resentment, envy, and feelings of inadequacy and exclusion. Negative emotions among employees who think colleagues have more flexibility than they do include:

  • Feeling like they’re being taken advantage of, and others with more flexibility aren’t working as hard – 17%
  • Resentful of people with more flexibility – 15%
  • Resentful of their employers for allowing it – 13%

Hybrid and Remote Work Are More Inclusive for People with Neurodivergent Differences, Disabilities or Health Conditions

Several studies have found that hybrid and remote work increases inclusivity and team diversity across gender, race, caregiver status, and more. Owl Labs’ survey examined another intersectional facet of diversity, equity and inclusion, finding that 1 in 3 employees (33%) report having neurodivergent differences, disabilities or health conditions. One in five of them (21%) say these conditions make it difficult for them to go to work in person.

The most common conditions that make it challenging for them to go to the office include:

  • Physical disabilities or injuries – 7% of respondents who said their conditions make in-office work difficult have one of these
  • Chronic physical illnesses or pain – 7%
  • Neurodivergent differences, such as ADHD or autism – 6%

When given more flexibility in where and when they do their jobs, workers with neurodivergent differences, disabilities or health conditions can complete their responsibilities more easily, effectively, and safely. Studies have shown that remote and hybrid work may remove barriers preventing them from participating in the job market at all – the COVID-induced shift to remote work even cut the unemployment rate in half for people with disabilities, from 12% before the pandemic to 6%, a 14-year record low. With more than 6 million people in the U.S. labor force having some form of disability – and only 23% of them being employed, when many would want to have jobs if they could find one that meets their needs – this is an important consideration and benefit of hybrid work.

Most Workers Face Annoyances at the Office That Could Be Keeping Them Away

Another possible reason for RTO resistance emerged in Owl Labs’ study, which found the vast majority – nearly 9 in 10 workers (86%) – have experienced common annoyances at the office. The most common pet peeve overall is loud talking, with more than 1/3 of respondents (35%) saying they’ve experienced it at the office. The famed “thermostat wars” also continue to rage on as the #2 complaint, with 32% of workers irked by uncomfortable temperatures.

Additional common irritations about office environments include:

  • Chatty people talking to you when you’re focused on work – 33%
  • People coughing / sneezing – 28%
  • Cliquey or rude behavior – 25%
  • Slow WiFi / internet – 21%
  • Smelly food – 19%

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