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A Globe and Mail survey found that 60 per cent of respondents would switch jobs if they were forced to return to work in an office full time.Illustration by Drew Shannon

A majority of people who responded to an online survey conducted by The Globe and Mail say they feel anxious or angry about the prospect of returning to work in an office and say that they would change jobs if their employers mandated going back full time.

The survey asked readers how they felt about working in an office again. More than 400 people completed it, sharing their thoughts about the pros and cons of working from home, what they miss about being in the office, and if a forced return to work would make them quit. The Globe and Mail is not identifying any respondents by name so they could share their opinions freely without fear or reprisal from their workplace.

The results paint a picture of how many Globe readers in white-collar jobs, across various sectors, have grown accustomed to working from home over the past two years and are mostly unwilling to trade the flexibility of remote working for the opportunity to interact with colleagues and managers in person.

In March this year, some City of Toronto employees were sent an e-mail instructing them to return to the office once a week starting April 19, with the expectation that the number of compulsory in-office days would gradually increase in the coming months.

A long-time employee of the city pushed back, telling the employer that the directive simply did not make sense from the perspective of productivity, given that employees working remotely had typically been working longer hours than ever over the pandemic.

The employee said they felt angry, frustrated and anxious at the idea that they would have to return to an open-concept office space that was not suitable for the kind of work being done – in this employee’s case, having sensitive conversations with marginalized folk across Toronto.

Their sentiment toward returning to the office is common, according to the results of the survey. More than 56 per cent of respondents described themselves as feeling angry or anxious about returning to the office, while just 22 per cent said they felt excited. A small minority of respondents – roughly 10 per cent – said they were relieved at the idea of resuming working in the office. When asked whether they would consider changing jobs if their employers instituted a mandatory return to the office full-time, 60 per cent said they would.

While not a scientific survey, and thus potentially self-selecting, it is still telling that the results are skewed towards negative responses, according to Matthias Spitzmuller, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. “We are, right now, on the cusp of immense change with going back into the office, and that naturally brings up feelings of anxiety and a need to want to maintain the status quo,” he said.

Greg, a mid-level manager working in the finance sector in Toronto, said that most of his peers were not interested in returning to the office, but tended to not express that sentiment out loud to their superiors because they did not want to offend senior management.

The survey also showed that 46 per cent of respondents said they had changed their mind about returning to work in an office over the course of the pandemic – 31 per cent said they were less excited about in-person work, while almost 15 per cent said they were more excited about it. More than a third of respondents – 35 per cent – said they hadn’t changed their minds about returning to the office over the course of the pandemic and continued to dread it.

Many of the largest banks and insurers in Canada, including TD Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Manulife Financial Corp., have started calling workers back to the office, even amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

In an internal memo to employees sent in early April, TD’s chief human-resources officer, Kenn Lalonde, said that it was “time to come together again,” and encouraged employees to “take advantage” of the optional return-to-the-office directive that would take effect later this month.

According to an employee who works in the wealth-management division of Royal Bank of Canada, staff have been told to return to the office three or four times a week by the end of May. The employee said he was unhappy about the directive, particularly because wealth managers essentially run their own practices, and there was no value to being around a large number of other employees.

He said he was not willing to give up one and a half hours in a day to commute just to sit at a desk and interact with one or two colleagues on matters not relevant to his job.

(According to a statement from an RBC spokesperson, most of the bank’s teams have returned to the office, with many adopting hybrid work routines.)

With a return-to-office, it’s high time we redefine what it means to be productive

In the survey, employees appear to be unenthusiastic about returning to work, even a couple of times a week, because of long commute times and a rigid work schedule. Roughly 84 per cent of respondents said that not commuting was a key benefit of remote working, while 79 per cent said they valued a flexible work day. Roughly 34 per cent of respondents said they did not miss anything at all about working in an office.

A senior human-resources professional in his mid-40s, who during the pandemic moved from Toronto to London, Ont., tried to persuade the hospitality-sector company he works for to allow employees to work remotely full-time if they chose to. However, the company insisted that it was important for its organizational culture that employees be in the office at least once a week.

He told The Globe that every single new hire the Toronto-based company had in the past few months enquired about remote work and made a decision to accept or reject an offer based on how flexible they thought the company’s work-from-home policy was.

There was also a distinct difference in survey respondents’ attitudes toward returning to work based on career stage, results showed. For example, those who identified themselves as senior managers and executive-level professionals, tended to be less anxious and more excited than most about returning to work. Intermediate-level professionals were more angry than the surveyed cohort about returning to the office, while entry-level employees were the most excited about it.

Managers, business owners and those in executive positions are more likely to want to return to the prepandemic regularity of working from the office because they are used to leading in an office environment, says Luke Zhu, a professor of organizational behaviour at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“They have been trained that way for decades, and they tend to feel that they have more control over their organizations in person, so it is unsurprising they are pushing for a return to the office,” he said.

At the same time, it is understandable that younger, more junior employees would want to be in the office, Prof. Zhu said. “For recent graduates, they’ve never experienced working in the office. For many, it might be their dream lifestyle – suiting up, meeting new colleagues, learning about the company.”

That is exactly what Scott Kotush, an entry-level consultant at a Big Four accounting firm, said he envisioned about working life. Mr. Kotush, who is based in Toronto, graduated from business school in the spring of 2020, and has hence spent most of the past two years working from home.

“This is my first real office job,” he told The Globe. “I joined a big company because I was excited about meeting new people, understanding the culture of my workplace and doing fun things like getting after-work drinks. How do you get a sense of corporate culture over a screen?”

Mr. Kotush now goes into the office twice a week, even though it is not mandatory for him to be in. “I really can’t wait till the office fills up again.”