What do people miss about the office when working from home?

For my Attest Investigates series I explore what people miss about the office now that working from home is here to stay.

Welcome to Attest Investigates! A series where I use the Attest platform to test anyone’s hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

Introduction and hypothesis

While (I hope) we can all agree that the flexibility many office workers now have – choosing when and why to WFH vs. in an office – is overwhelmingly a good thing, what, if anything, do people miss about the office? 

That’s the submission I’m delving into for this research – what do people miss most while working from home? For this edition of Attest Investigates, here’s my hypothesis: the majority of office workers will have bid a gleeful goodbye to the more laborious aspects of office working (commuting, for example).

Method

We’ve surveyed a nationally representative sample of 500 Americans using the Attest platform – our original submission came from a US connection, based in New York. 

We also used the qualifying question feature to make sure we ask the relevant group of part- or full-time office workers. 

Over on the Attest dashboard you can see the full results – tinker with the demographic filters to the right of the screen for even deeper insights.

Results

Most of all, people miss people

When asked through an open text question to tell us what they miss the most about not working in the office full time, the words that came up most prominently are:

  • Coworkers
  • People
  • Interaction

A lot of the sentiment here is to do with socializing and having the space to hang out with friends, but a hefty amount also has to do with work-based communication and collaboration.   

Beyond the people, nothing else in the free-text responses jumps out as a particularly prominent missed aspect. Indeed when we open up the word cloud we see that ‘nothing’ is the biggest individual term people use, which is significant in itself. Listen up office-happy managers: as much as you might want people to pine for the watercooler, loads of your colleagues don’t miss a thing about the office! Your updated communications, benefits and teamwork strategies really should reflect this. 

Commuting is consigned to the history books…

The commute emerged as the single biggest thing people don’t miss about the office. In other news, water is wet.

This one really is no surprise. The daily grind on a packed bus or train has long been deemed the least pleasant part of most people’s working day. People are understandably happy to welcome back the time, money and patience they used to spend commuting. 

Other notable aspects of office life that people told us they don’t miss include: 

  • Office drama and gossip
  • Interruptions 
  • Getting dressed (seriously, multiple people said this)

Interruptions top the WFH dislike list

We then presented our respondents with a list of the general reasons people might dislike working from home, and asked them to choose up to three they dislike the most. 

While one fairly clear winner emerged, the list has a wider distribution than you might expect:

  • Interruptions from people I live with – 31.3% chose this
  • Missing out on impromptu chats with colleagues – 26.1%
  • Not having a regular routine – 24.9% 
  • Being interrupted by someone at the door – 24.5% 
  • Not feeling part of a team with my colleagues – 24.3%
  • Feeling out of the loop on work topics – 22.3%
  • Too many video calls – 21.9%
  • Not having a clear beginning and end to the day – 17.7% 

I’m personally surprised to see the last option appearing so low on this list. It seems that general media chatter about working from home usually describes how people don’t feel properly able to switch off at the end of the day. The optimist in me hopes the reason for this is that people feel more able to work on their work, with their own flexible timetables – the 9-5 is largely irrelevant now. Perhaps 18+ months of impost experience of WFH has liberated many people from the expectation of ‘office hours’, especially when working from home.

Commuting, cash and clothes: the top reasons to WFH

When we asked what, from our list, people most like about working from home, we see old favourites reemerging. Commuting came top overall:

  • Not having to commute – 42.7% chose this overall
  • Saving money – 39.9% 
  • Not having to dress for work – 30.5%
  • Working flexibly – 28.9%
  • Being able to focus better – 23%
  • It feels safer – 22.2%
  • Not feeling watched by my boss/colleagues – 22%
  • More flexibility about where I can live – 18.2% 
  • An office space that I’ve designed – 12.6% 
  • Positive environmental impact – 12.6% 

We see yet more intriguing generational differences when we drill into the data. Under 30s are less enthusiastic about not having to commute – only 30.4% say this is a top reason to work from home, more than 12% lower than the overall number. In fact their number one reason to work from home is to save money.

Under 30s miss their old routines

Digging into age demographics – which is super simple with Attest by the way (just play with the filters on the right-hand side of the dashboard) – we find that under 30s significantly over index for ‘not having a regular routine’. I’m not totally sure what I expected here, but I suppose I thought young people would embrace a flexible schedule to a greater extent than this. It’s certainly useful for companies and recruiters to understand nuances like this.

Now we know what they don’t like, what are under 30s positively pumped about when WFH? We found that the decrease we see in young people disliking the commute is spread across several other factors. The 12% or so who disappear from the commuting option are spread across:

  • Being able to focus better – 27.2% of under 30s chose this, 4.2% more than the overall total
  • Not feeling watched by my boss/colleague – 26.4%, 4.4% more than overall
  • It feels safer – 24%, 1.8 more than overall

What brands can learn from this is that young people’s working needs can be quite starkly different from older people’s. Companies would do well to bear this in mind when trying to attract young talent. 

Future scope

This research has given us a really good snapshot of how American office workers are feeling about their WFH setups. Understanding the picture in other markets – as rules, expectations and habits change – would be super interesting. I can imagine some really unexpected differences in countries’ reflections on the changes to their interactions with colleagues. 

For example, we can see how much Americans miss being around people at work. I predict slightly less overt yearning for social interactions from, say, Brits.

Conclusion

As I imagine we all expected, working from home has allowed people to ditch what they deem the more arduous aspects of office working. Those countless hours and dollars we used to splurge getting to and from work were actually worth more than we imagined, as shown by the majority for whom the deletion of commuting is the best aspect of working from home.  

I expected newfound individual flexibility to be especially treasured, but I’m surprised to see it’s not recognised as an explicit priority for home workers. The picture is more nuanced. 

As we’ve discovered, different demographics – particularly based on age – have different working-from-home priorities and expectations. Companies, managers and teams should measure and understand this, to offer different forms of WFH and different approaches to flexibility to all their employees, so that we can tailor individual home working experience for maximum benefit. As ever, understanding the consumer – in this case employees working from home – is the key to success.

Jeremy King

CEO 

Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy