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Half of American professionals afraid to return to the office because of COVID-19

The New Normal: This is your life
The New Normal: This is your life 07:42

The current emphasis on retrofitting workplaces to enable social distancing and including safety measures like plexiglass sneeze guards to protect workers has done little to quell employees' anxiety over returning to the office amid the coronavirus pandemic

Half of American professionals are reluctant to go back to the office, citing health concerns, even as state and local governments begin to lift lockdown orders, giving more workers the green light to return to their workplaces, according to a new survey from Korn Ferry, a consulting firm. The Korn Ferry survey took place in early June and includes responses from 1,044 professionals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released recommendations for companies as they plan to bring workers back to offices, including mandating that workers wear face masks, conducting meeting outdoors and discouraging colleagues from congregating in tight spaces. 

Limiting the number of people in a given office at the same time, by staggering shifts, is also key. Even without those efforts, workplaces could thin out since less than a third of survey respondents said they plan to return to their reopened offices.

It's unlikely to be a point of contention between workers and their bosses: Forty percent of survey respondents said their employer will not force them to return to the office. 

Offering employees flexibility is key to earning their trust and should be a the top of business leaders' priority lists, according to Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry's global head of leadership development.

"Offer people a choice" to help employees feel comfortable, such as giving a choice between a face-to-face meeting or a Zoom meeting, he told CBS MoneyWatch. "It's something employees can choose, rather than it's suddenly business as usual."

The coronavirus pandemic has also opened up a debate over both the merits and pitfalls of working from home versus in a shared office setting, and has already brought about change in how employers view remote work. Facebook, Twitter and other big businesses have said that employees can work from home indefinitely, with more companies expected to follow suit as the costs of following new protocols become more clear.

More productive

One upside to working from home: Nearly two-thirds of workers said they are more productive at home than they are at the office, even while juggling childcare and other responsibilities, according to the survey.

Of course, casual interactions with colleagues are impossible when workers aren't in the same space, and half of the survey respondents said camaraderie is what they are most looking forward to when they return to the office. One in five survey respondents said there is nothing they are looking forward to about returning to the office.

The pandemic gives companies an opportunity to rethink the role of in-office work. Rather than being the norm, it could be an optional perk of sorts for employees. 

"Take advantage of the shift in mindset," Baltzley said. "Think of it as part of an employee value proposition as there is this shift in workplace flexibility."

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