HomeRemote WorkNew Data: Owl Labs’ Latest US Workers Pulse Survey Results

New Data: Owl Labs’ Latest US Workers Pulse Survey Results

Owl Labs recently 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 new data report reveals pressure and tension amid ongoing return to office mandates and hybrid work preferences. 

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. Owl Labs is well-known for its annual State of Hybrid Work report, which the company has published over the past seven years, as it has been a longtime hybrid workplace itself, even before the pandemic. The most recent 2023 study sparked viral conversation around the subversive workplace trend of “coffee badging.”

“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.” 

Nearly two-thirds of hybrid workers (61%) have felt pressured by their employers to go into the office over the past three years. Hybrid workers are nearly four times as likely to feel pushed to RTO as their full-time remote colleagues, only 17% of whom have felt the same. Managers are bearing the brunt of it, as hybrid managers (60%) are nearly twice as likely as non-managers (32%) to feel the weight of this office work expectation. 

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, and 10% saying February. One in five hybrid employees (20%) say they feel equally urged to go on-site all year round.

When company leaders backtrack or “flip flop” on their work location policies, it creates confusion, stress and distrust among employees. Instead of calling people back to the office at certain times of the year or to fill commercial real estate, companies should determine what their teams actually need to be productive – and clearly communicate the reasoning for any changes

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 – in order to retain the productive, happy workers they need. In fact, nearly half of employees (41%) say their employers’ policies about where and when people work are not applied equally across the company. 

Hybrid workers are least likely to feel policies are applied equally, with more than half (52%) saying they’re not, compared to 38% of full-time in-office workers and 31% of fully remote employees. 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%)
  • Employees at random (10%)
  • People with longer tenure at the company (8%)
  • People with neurodivergences, disabilities or health conditions 
  • Junior employees (3%)
  • Parents / caregivers (3%)

Caregivers and parents are often assumed to have more flexibility than others in where and when they work but the data shows that stereotype may not be accurate, as they ranked in last place on the list. 

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. This includes being clear with employees about how much flexibility they have to customize their schedules to work when and where they are most effective.

“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%
  • Feeling excluded – 11%
  • Feeling inadequate, like they’re not good enough to have the same flexibility privileges – 9%
  • Envious – 8%

Notably, full-time in-office workers (21%) are nearly twice as likely as hybrid ones (12%) and more than three times as likely as remote staffers (6%) to feel like they’re being taken advantage of. This could be a result of RTO mandates forcing employees back to the office when they don’t want to be there. 

Transparency is key when it comes to work policies. To help foster positive feelings instead of confusion about flexibility, leaders should communicate why it’s important that everyone can schedule their own task-based hybrid work so they can be most productive – such as conducting meetings and brainstorms in-office and focusing on solo projects at home or in a “third space” like a cafe. 

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%
  • Menstrual symptoms – 4%
  • Chronic mental health conditions – 4%
  • Immunodeficiencies – 4%

While these conditions make it tough to go into the office, only 6% of their colleagues think workers with neurodivergent differences, disabilities or health conditions have more workplace flexibility than others. They’re actually perceived as having less flexibility than senior executives, employees with long tenures, and even random colleagues.

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. Companies that support these workers with flexibility are also seizing a competitive advantage by improving diversity, recruiting underrepresented candidates, expanding their talent pool by 15%, increasing productivity by up to 30%, and boosting morale. 

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. Some concerns are even more serious, with personal safety being an issue for the 14% of workers who have unfortunately experienced harassment or unwanted attention at the office. 

Additional common irritations about office environments include:

  • Slow WiFi / internet – 21% of workers have experienced this annoyance at the office
  • Smelly food – 19%
  • Unsanitary or smelly bathrooms – 16%
  • Bad lighting – 16%
  • Uncomfortable furniture – 15%
  • Bad coffee – 13%
  • Bad music – 12%
  • Slow elevators – 11%
  • “Conference room wars” when competing for access to meeting rooms – 10%
  • Conference room technology that’s difficult to use – 10%

Workers are bothered by their colleagues too, with more top pet peeves including:

  • Chatty people talking to you when you’re focused on work – 33%
  • People coughing / sneezing – 28%
  • Cliquey or rude behavior – 25%
  • Coworkers’ perfume, cologne or body odor – 17%
  • Loud eating – 16%
  • People spying on your computer screen – 14%

Even non-human coworkers get on a few colleagues’ nerves, with 8% mentioning animals in the office as a nuisance they’ve experienced. 

While these may sound pedantic, employees are less likely to be able to focus and be productive, have creative ideas, and collaborate effectively as a team when they’re feeling annoyed or overstimulated – and hybrid or remote work likely reduce these daily pain points. While it’s impossible to eliminate all nuisances for everyone, many of these issues have relatively easy fixes. For employers who want to make their offices more welcoming to their teams, installing sound-proof workspaces, upgrading technology and internet speeds, and purchasing a few air purifiers could go a long way to improve morale.

For more future of work data, see Owl Labs’ most recent annual State of Hybrid Work report. Contact press@owllabs.com with any questions or inquiries.