COVID-19: The new reality of work and the virtual workforce

KPMG survey unveils better worker experience but rise in stress levels

Matt Campbell

Matt Campbell

Managing Director, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG US

+1 917-488-1391

Brock Solano

Brock Solano

Managing Director, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG LLP

+1 858-750-7063

Four months into the national emergency triggered by the coronavirus outbreak, most American workers give their employers high marks for their response to the crisis, according to the second KPMG American Worker pulse survey.  

Yet more than three-quarters of respondents also say the demands of their jobs have increased, with nearly half reporting that their mental health has declined. Those working remotely report less stress than those still trekking to the office—which may be one important reason why a majority of all workers want to retain the flexibility to work remotely at least some of the time.

At KPMG, we surveyed more than 1,400 U.S. workers to learn how well corporate responses to COVID-19 are working for employees, following up on research we initially conducted in April. Below we present our key findings along with our recommendations for steps employers can take now to cope with immediate concerns and build.

Key findings

For remote workers, the “new normal” has led to higher levels of satisfaction and engagement with their employer. We found that those working remotely are more likely to say their organization has made them feel valued over the past four months, that their commitment to their organization has gone up, and that their desire to continue working for their employer has increased. Remote workers also are more likely to report an improvement in their work/life balance and satisfaction with the work they produce.

While most workers feel more committed to their employer, many also say work demands have increased and their mental health has declined since our survey in April. Many employers are taking steps to address these issues: 40 percent have provided flexible work schedules, and 35 percent have provided access to mental health professionals. More than a quarter have encouraged employees to take time off, surveyed employees about their mental health, or provided resources from external groups. In all cases, remote workers were more likely to have received mental health support than in-office workers.

Most workers say the work experience itself has improved, but a significant number report the opposite. Thirty percent of respondents say their relationship with their coworkers has worsened over the past four months. Thirty-five percent say their team’s ability to collaborate has deteriorated, and a like percentage say their organization’s culture has worsened. In-office workers are significantly more likely than remote workers to say their happiness at work has declined and that their company’s culture has worsened. On the other hand, remote workers are more likely to say their relationship with coworkers has gotten worse.

Many worker perceptions vary depending on their classification, such as manager or nonmanager, parent or nonparent, essential worker or nonessential worker. Workers who feel valued by their employer are more likely than those who don’t to say their productivity has increased over the past four months, and significantly more likely to say their commitment to their organization has increased (86 percent versus 39 percent).

Despite their positive feelings about the past four months, a majority of workers (64 percent) want the flexibility to work remotely at least some of the time. Overall, we believe these findings suggest that most workers trust their employers to provide a safe work environment no matter where they’re located.

Workers take a generally positive view of their employers’ response to recent social and political events around racial inequality, too—but point to little evidence of concrete action. Three in five workers say their organization should be doing more, and 51 percent think the leaders at their organization are actually part of the diversity and inclusion problem, with 37 percent of workers saying they’ve experienced discrimination where they work.

What employers can do

The results also reveal opportunities for organizations to address these challenges. Employees want continued flexibility in how and where they work, additional training and support when they are working from home, and more opportunities and resources for collaborating with colleagues. Companies should consider steps to help employees enhance their skills in an increasingly digital workplace, enable them to collaborate and connect with coworkers more easily, and help them cope with stress. Employers may also need to reassess the demands placed on employees doing work once performed by colleagues who have been let go or furloughed. Extra work originally envisioned as temporary, but now starting to look permanent, could lead to burnout.

Here are five steps employers can take now:

  1. Reshape how works gets done so the organization can benefit from an agile, digitally enabled workforce when the current crisis has ended
  2. Connect the workforce and build the networks and relationships that can help drive problem solving and innovation
  3. Uncover new personas—groups of employees with similar traits, experiences, behaviors, and expectations—and use the findings to drive a positive employee experience
  4. Rethink diversity and inclusion to demonstrate deeper levels of commitment and accountability across the enterprise
  5. Reframe learning and development with digitally driven, just-in-time programs, and emphasize human skills and teamwork as practiced in a virtual environment.

Our new research suggests employers have done a lot right in responding to COVID-19 and that their measures to facilitate remote work have been instrumental in that effort. Now, by leveraging today’s advanced technologies, they can take steps to support the employees they depend on today while building a more agile, innovative, and sustainable workforce for tomorrow.

These are just some of the highlights of the research. To explore more, visit the American Worker survey | summer 2020 pulse