Illustration of remote workers.


Work & Economy

Is ‘business as usual’ gone for good?

4 min read

Survey finds new lifestyle preferences drive new era for workplace

As the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of Americans home this time last year, many professionals struggled to navigate work and household responsibilities. But a recent survey from Harvard Business School Online shows that working online did work. In fact, many professionals even experienced advancement and growth — both on the job and at home — this year. “The past year has been difficult for everyone, but what’s surprising is how well people feel they’ve performed at work, while at home,” said Patrick Mullane, HBS Online’s executive director. “Now, as we’re preparing to get back to ‘business as usual,’ it seems professionals don’t want ‘business as usual.’ Instead, they want flexibility from their employers to allow them to maintain the new work/home balance and productivity they have come to enjoy.”

HBS Online retained Cambridge, Mass.-based market research firm City Square Associates to survey nearly 1,500 professionals who worked remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown from March 2020 to March 2021. Respondents were asked to compare this past year to the prior one.

Professional growth despite personal struggles

Despite the widespread hardships and heartbreaks of COVID-19, there is positive news. The HBS Online survey revealed that respondents experienced professional and personal wins, along with embracing many healthy — and even some unhealthy — habits.

“Many of us have Zoom fatigue,” said Simeen Mohsen, HBS Online’s managing director of product management. “Yet, despite not being in the office, many professionals still performed well and were even able to grow in their careers. They somehow rose to the occasion and gave it their all, both as individuals and as teams.”

Want to go back to office, but with more flexibility and certain conditions

The survey showed that many professionals miss their colleagues and other aspects of being in the office, and some want to go back. But since they proved they were able to perform, and even excel, during the pandemic, they want more flexibility.

Survey highlights

  • Going back to work
    • 81% either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward
    • 27% hope to work remotely full time
    • 61% would like to work 2-3 days a week from home
    • 18% want to go back to the office full time.
      • Parents with kids at home want to go back full time more than those without children.
      • Married people also want to go back full time more than singles.
      • On the other hand, people from the Northeast are more likely to want to stay remote.
  • Conditions for going back
    • 51% are uncomfortable going back to the office until they’re fully vaccinated
    • 71% are hesitant to go back until everyone is fully vaccinated
    • 54% expect social distancing — everyone is seated at least 6 feet apart and required to wear masks
  • Professional grow: Excelled at work
    • 98% of professionals working from home kept their jobs
    • 1-in-3 felt both their overall performance and quality of work was better than the year prior
    • 1-in-3 were actually able to better focus on work from home
  • Gelled with co-workers — even while remote
    • 1-in-2 said the following did not change:
      • Collaboration with co-workers
      • Support from co-workers
      • Trust in leadership
  • Developed healthy habits
    • 59% made health a priority
    • 70% prepared healthier meals at home
    • 50% read for fun
    • 36% napped more
    • 16% adopted a dog or pet
    • 68% spent more time with their pets
    • 44% exercised more
    • 45% spent more time doing outdoor activities
    • 31% took on a new hobby
  • Acquired bad habits
    • 75% binge-watched TV shows or movies more
    • 1-in-3 gained weight (10+ lbs.)
    • 1-in-3 drank more
    • 31% took recreational drugs more
    • 14% bathed less

For more information about the survey, to download infographics, or to find tips to help business leaders navigate the changing workplace, visit the HBS Online website.