Some workers are re-creating home environments in the office; others decided not to return

Jannet Ponder is back in the office, like so many other American workers. She brought plants with her to give her cubicle more tranquility, along with family photos and other personal, decorative items.

Ponder's homey cubicle illustrates a struggle playing out in offices and homes across the United States. Some workers are resisting mandates to return to the office, while many who do comply try to re-create their workspace of the past two years by bringing bits of home with them.

During the pandemic, Ponder, an administrative assistant at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, started gardening to relieve stress – a common COVID-19 trend. After coming back into the office, she decided to bring her plants with her.

“We try to make this place as comfortable as home,” Ponder said. “I need to have some visual thing that says, 'This is from the house.'”

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Many companies are turning to hybrid work schedules to help keep employees happy and boost production.

Productivity and lingering COVID concerns keep some at home

Ponder isn't alone in bringing some home to work.

Samantha Rife is an accountant and commutes 30 miles to her office in Atlanta several days a week. She would rather work entirely from home. As an introvert, Rife doesn’t enjoy socializing and believes she is less productive in the office, she said.

In the office, "I have my jazz music on because I'm trying to keep myself calm, and I get out and walk every day during lunch. … I need that mental break,” Rife said, adding that she brings in food from home. "I have my coffee and my bagel, so I guess in a sense I'm trying to re-create the environment I had at home, but it's not the same.”

Rife believes she has more control over her life when working remotely, because she can do laundry or prepare food for her two teenage sons during work hours. She said those breaks are similar to the breaks she takes in the office.

Elaina Fawbush is a data analyst in Louisville, Kentucky. Her office went remote in March 2020, but it has recently returned to in-person work, and about 85% of her colleagues are back, she said.

But Fawbush got permission to continue working at home because she is more productive there and is still concerned about COVID-19 after getting it twice.

“In the office setting, you got a lot of distractions, a lot of interruptions. Also, ever since COVID … I don't like to be around a lot of people,” Fawbush said. “I just didn't want to go back into the office setting. I can do my job. I don't have to be in the office.”

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Employees don’t come into the office as much as asked

According to “Why Working from Home Will Stick,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, only 82% of employees have come into the office as much as their employers desired, and 43% responded that the employers did not punish those who came in less frequently than required.

Managers have two choices in these scenarios: not enforce the in-person work hours and appear weak, or enforce the work hours and anger employees, said researcher Nicholas Bloom, economics professor at Stanford University. He added that some workers don’t need to come in every day to get their jobs done and could be more productive at home.

“There's nothing that would be more irritating than meeting your targets, doing a great job and still getting punished because you haven't come in to work in the office for as many days as possible,” Bloom said. “For some people in IT or in finance that can easily do their job from home for two, three days a week, there's just no reason to force them to come into … offices five days a week.”

The data shows that many employers struggle to bring all their workers back to the worksites, said researcher Steven J. Davis, an economist who studies business dynamics. He added that enforcing return-to-work policies could lead to employees quitting.

“To bring employees back to the office, the boss needs a compelling answer to this question: ‘Why must I spend 30, 60, 90 minutes a day on commuting, when I’ve shown I can do my job from home?’” Davis told USA TODAY via email.

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A hybrid work schedule could boost employees’ productivity

Bloom recommended companies employ a hybrid format, in which employees could work two or three days a week from home, to increase productivity. Companies should ask employees on the same teams to come in on the same days, he said.

“The idea is that three days in the office are all full of meetings, presentations, trainings, client events, things that are group events, and you don't really need quiet space, you're not there to do quiet work, and your days working from home are filled with quiet work and your Zoom calls,” Bloom said.

He added the two main reasons why employees value working remotely are time saved in commute and more flexibility, while the two main reasons why they want to come into the office are face-to-face collaboration and socialization.

Many employees cite time saved in commuting and more flexibility for their preference to work from home.

If employees have to come in, quiet work pods might be useful 

According to a survey commissioned by Framery, a manufacturer of soundproof phone booths and pods, 46% of respondents identified fitness facilities and 44% of respondents identified designated quiet spaces as office benefits they want the most. The survey also shows 41% think their ability to concentrate in an open-floor plan office has worsened compared with before the pandemic.

Framery CEO Samu Hällfors said companies should find the best aspects in both remote and in-person work to change the work environment and motivate employees to come into the office.

“Removing the distractions, giving you spaces that you can concentrate, giving you spaces where you can collaborate with your colleagues and make innovations, have those meaningful encounters with people. That really makes the difference,” Hällfors said.

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Christine Herforth, a design engineer in Ohio, said she prefers to go to the worksite only when she is needed, because she lives 45 miles away and feels more productive at home, she said.

When in the office, she uses headphones to prevent her colleagues from talking with her and interrupting her thoughts.

“If it’s business-related, I'd take my headphones off. If not, I'll just smile and hope that you’d go on, because designing and drawing and all of that all day really takes concentration. And I guess what I like about my home environment is that nobody's bothering me when I'm trying to draw or figure out complicated math equations,” Herforth said.

She added the office will be moving into a bigger facility later this year, with a game room and quiet spaces, which Herforth believes will help with concentration.

“I’m really thankful that they have thought about these things to help us ease our transition back into work,” Herforth said. “I feel that this is what's going to help my transition back to work, because right now, it's not working.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Post-COVID return to office: Some workers bring back reminders of home