A huge number of US companies and employers are deferring return-to-office plans, a recent survey by global audit firm KPMG reported.

The survey released on Monday (December 14) entitled Return to the Workplace interviewed 100 employers in the United States who represent over 5 million employees as they address critical return-to-work questions.

While many American employers are eager to go back to office work, some 82 percent of employers are wary of welcoming back workers as they place return-to-office plans on hold. The study also shows that many employers are waiting for clarity on vaccines and local regulations to be imposed by authorities.

The study also disclosed that only 27 percent of employers plan to open their physical locations and welcome back their employees. Some have also pushed back plans of reopening workplaces to later in 2021 while other employers have permanently not required their employees to return to the office.

Survey results also indicated that companies and organizations are letting employees decide when they feel safe and comfortable returning to the office, with only 18 percent mandating that employees return to the office by a certain date, at this time.

The survey conducted by KPMG LLP in September covered U.S. senior executives from 100 companies with annual revenue of at least $1 billion and governmental organizations with an aggregate headcount of approximately 5 million employees. The research also covered companies from six industries: consumer markets/retail, government, life sciences, financial services, industrial manufacturing, and technology, media and telecommunications.

“While it seems that employees are successfully working outside their traditional offices, employers have new questions about how to measure productivity in a virtual world,” Atif Zaim, KPMG Advisory principal and Restarting America leader said in a statement.

“Organizations are working on new measures to avoid exposing employees to undue health risks through widespread return-to-office initiatives ahead of available vaccines,” Zaim said.

The KPMG Research also described how employers are managing their COVID-19 workplace response. The research found that organizations are implementing a variety of measures to manage employee risk, with social distancing being the most frequent activity at 52 percent.

Around 48 percent of employers have also implemented social distancing and contact tracing measures and daily symptom checks at 44 percent.

“Mask wearing, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning protocols can help lower the risk of infection, until the use of a vaccine can help accelerate the return-to-office timeframe,” added Zaim.

As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its first year, many companies have yet to layout their plans, strategies, and policies when employees return to their workplaces.

Other employers, according to the study, have accepted that their offices will never be the same or operate as they were a year ago as the fear of acquiring the coronavirus lingers.

How do employers cope?

With the absence of employees in workplaces, companies have extensively used technology to facilitate employee wellness and risk management.

The research also showed that nearly all employers or  99 percent are investing in technologies that facilitate employee wellness (45% of survey participants), readiness (43% of survey participants), and workforce health tracking (41% of survey participants).

The survey also reveals that business owners and companies have an increased interest in technology investments that support risk management strategies, and help manage restart policy on an ongoing basis, even as organizations scale their virtual workforces in the future.

“In many ways, COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for employers and has demonstrated that increased investment in programs that support employee health, safety, and wellness are critical to maintaining continuity of operations as well as attracting top talent,” said Paul Hencoski, KPMG Advisory principal and Health, and Government Solutions leader.

“Technology can play a critical role in enabling more sophisticated approaches to employee wellness and disease risk management.”

Profitability remains a top priority

As many businesses’ financial survival is placed on the line during the pandemic, organizations are also focusing on profitability, cash flow, and other financial planning.

Aside from the physical health of employees, some 46 percent of survey participants have said increasing cash flow and business profits remain to be the number one priority.

Priorities, however, vary by industry with some companies, such as those in financial services and consumer & retail, focusing on the digitization of customer-facing operations.

Meanwhile, companies whose line of trade fall on industrial and manufacturing activities have increasingly focused their efforts on supply chain improvements.

“Investing in new workforce models will be an effective way to improve long-term profitability and viability,” said Joe Parente, KPMG Advisory principal and leader of Work Anywhere.

Work Anywhere is KPMG’s human-centric and digitally-enabled approach in helping organizations redesign the way work gets done.

“By optimizing the remote workforce to improve agility and productivity, organizations can balance financial resilience on both a short- and long-term basis,” Parente said.

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JM Agreda is a freelance journalist for more than 12 years writing for numerous international publications, research journals, and news websites. He mainly covers business, tech, transportation, and political news for Businessner.