As the Covid-19 Delta variant surges across the U.S., so do employees’ fears of returning to the office.

According to a survey by the Conference Board, the number of remote employees who fear returning to in-person work jumped to 42 percent in August from 24 percent only two months earlier.

After months of declining coronavirus cases earlier this year as Americans began receiving vaccines, the more highly contagious variant emerged in full force in July and sparked a spike in infections countrywide.

“With headlines about the rise of the Delta variant, breakthrough cases among the vaccinated and an overburdened healthcare system in much of the country, Covid-19 concerns that were subsiding just two months ago have risen,” Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of Human Capital at the Conference Board, said in the study.

Women workers are more concerned than men about contracting Covid-19 if they return to the workplace (48 percent vs. 37 percent), with 46 percent of women worried they will expose family members to the virus, compared to 40 percent of men.

In addition, 25 percent of women felt pressure to return to in-person work, compared with 15 percent of men. Mental health deterioration also was a concern for 27 percent of women, while 11 percent of men cited it as an issue.

Outside of Covid fears, remote workers in the study also fret about losing their flexible work arrangements, the survey said. In fact, more than one-third of employees may leave their current jobs within the next six months if they are forced to return to the office, the report revealed.

Eighty percent of workers polled cited flexible arrangements as a “very important” factor in deciding whether to look for another employer.

More men (70 percent) than women (59 percent) are certain they’ll stay at their current jobs for the next six months, the survey said.

Preference for hybrid option

“Especially for women, to whom the bulk of caretaking and household responsibilities still unfortunately fall, the flexibility to choose what works best for them is critically important,” Ray said in the study. “We are starting to see companies with flexible work arrangements successfully attracting the top talent of their competitors who have adopted a more rigid stance. The challenge of attracting and retaining talent in a tightening labor market is only going to become more difficult.”

If there is one issue most of the polled workers agree on, it’s the preference for a hybrid work arrangement.

About two-thirds (67 percent) are happy to work some days remotely and some days in the workplace, the survey found. Only 4 percent said they want to work entirely in-office.

Still, most employees are feeling the strain of less connectedness because of the shift to remote work, the poll said.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents are worried about connecting with coworkers, while other top concerns included a lack of boundaries between work and personal life, working more hours and a lack of visibility, the study showed.

“A desire to work remotely doesn’t mitigate legitimate concerns about the downsides of remote work,” Robin Erickson, principal researcher, human capital, at the Conference Board, said in the report.

“For example, those who are more likely to want to work remotely — women, millennials and individual contributors — are also most concerned with a lack of connection with colleagues when doing so,” Erickson added.

The Conference Board, founded in 1916, is a nonprofit member-driven think tank. It surveyed 2,400 workers for it study.

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