Survey: What employees want when returning to the office

This Quebec City-based software company surveyed its employees to gauge their sentiments about the “post-pandemic” working environment. Here’s what they found.

The past year has put employers and their employees through the gauntlet. That’s putting it lightly. Since January, we’ve gone from optimistic predictions about a wholesale return to the office, to questions about whether it will happen at all. We’ve heard speculation about the staying power of hybrid working environments, too. In the interim, swaths of people have decided to quit altogether.

Still, many workers arereturning to in-office environments, at least in the United States and Canada. It’s a predictable outcome when you consider a PwC report that found only 13 percent of executives are prepared to adopt a completely remote workplace. The question is, what will those workers need to be successful?

At Coveo, we have hired more than 250 people since the beginning of the pandemic. Not many have been to one of our offices since their start date. And while that might change in the future, we decided to survey our employees to gauge their sentiments about the so-called post-pandemic working environment.

We found most people want to work in-office but not five days a week. About 36 percent of respondents prefer to spend three to four days a week in the office, while 35 percent prefer just one to two days a week. One-fifth of respondents prefer to keep things 100 percent remote.

Preferences seem to depend on location

One of the more intriguing results was the difference in preference between locations, as well as the big-city-small-city contrast. Of our respondents from Quebec City (population: 550,000), for example, 41 percent would like to work in the office three to four days a week. In Montreal (population: 1.8 million), the same portion of respondents prefers to work only one to two days a week in office. We tend to think longer commutes and use of public transportation influence such a difference.

Interestingly, our hypothesis seems to be confirmed in San Francisco (population 3.3 million), where 50 percent of respondents would like to work remotely full-time and London (population 9.4 million), where the number jumps to 67 percent. But to confuse everything, New York City (population 18.8 million) comes along, and 100 percent of respondents prefer to work 3-4 days a week in the office.

Employees want health measures in place

While their desired methods and means might vary, employees do want measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. From our survey:

  • 46 percent want mandatory vaccines
  • 46 percent want a clean desk policy
  • 44 percent want nightly deep cleans
  • 38 percent want a contact tracing app

Despite the preference for a variety of health measures, only 18 percent of employees want partitions between desks. That said, a convincing 74 percent are willing to give up a personal desk altogether.

Where collaboration and access to information fit in

While there might not be clear consensus around what returning to the office should look like, it’s going to happen for many companies – at least to some extent. Which leads me to another compelling data point from the PwC report referenced above: 87 percent of employees think the in-person office is important for collaboration.

My prediction? Easy access to relevant information will make or break the ability of remote and hybrid employees to collaborate. More specifically, employers will have a more urgent imperative to make employees’ access to relevant information more personalized, proactive and low friction.

Employees just spent more than a year at home on their phones, laptops and smart TVs. In-home data usage was up 18 percent in 2020. And the modern experience across these devices is highly personalized. The recommendations people get on their personal devices for accounts to follow, videos to watch even what they should eat for dinner—it’s all “hyper” personalized and AI-powered.

If we want to empower and retain our returning employees, that kind of seamless personalization needs to carry over into the workplace, at least in a few notable areas:


Since more than 250 employees have started but never been to the office, we have evolved our onboarding program to ensure these employees have support as they return to the office environment. Not every employee will go through the same steps to onboard (or “re-onboard,” for existing employees going to the office for the first time). We’ve asked ourselves questions such as should we create video tours of the office or in-person walk-throughs? The more personalized onboarding is to each employee journey, the faster they’ll ramp up and be proficient.

Employee self-service

Nobody wants to go fishing for information, especially in a work environment that’s significantly changed. Instead, bring relevant content and engaging self-service experience to your employeeswherever and whenever they need it. Maybe that’s a smart chatbot that uses AI to connect employees with the content they need to finish a task. Or a context-specific helpdesk and IT support that reduces the steps it takes for an employee to resolve their issue. Organizations can improve the search functionality of their intranets using AI technology and use Slack connectors to make finding relevant information seamless from any screen. I’ve even seen some organizations build highly personalized portals that bring everything an employee needs into a single view.

Across channels

Few things impede proficiency like having to reinvent the wheel every time something needs to get done. Instead, we need to unify the experience for our employees as they move across devices, apps and other parts of the digital workplace.

In-office, at home or hybrid—relevance matters most

As the results of our internal survey shows, nothing is set in stone. So far only some of our new hires have started to work in-office full-time since the pandemic started; and moving forward, vaccine requirements will result in some employees working remotely longer term. 

The common thread throughout every working environment will be relevance. No matter where an employee is working, their success, proficiency and job satisfaction will depend on relevance of information so personal and immediate that the next click isn’t necessary. It’s all right there already. Of course, that’s the silver lining in all of this: thanks to the modern wonder that is AI and machine learning, relevance at scale is not only possible, it’s already here.