As the country struggles to return to normal — or adjust to the new normal — navigating the world of work is particularly problematic. Some employees consider working from home an added stressor as they struggle to be productive while balancing family demands. On the other hand, other employees actually find solace in work, as it provides a respite from the daily deluge of COVID-related headlines.

But there’s one thing these employees agree on. A new study by Qualtrics finds that the majority of employees who have been working from home would prefer to continue that arrangement.

Qualtrics conducted one study in April, and a second study in July. The first study found that 66% of people were not comfortable going back to the workplace. By the second study, that number only dropped by 5 points, as 61% of respondents still didn’t feel comfortable returning to the office when surveyed in July.

Why employees still aren’t comfortable returning to work

Based on the second study, it appears the only significant changes were in the passage of time. “There is still so much that is unknown about COVID, and we find out more every day, which means that our understanding of how to best protect ourselves is always evolving,” says Mike Maughan, head of global insights at Qualtrics.

However, there are factors that would indeed move the needle. “In our data, we found that 63% of employees working remotely would feel comfortable going back to work once public health organizations and local government officials have said it is safe to return,” Maughan explains. “And a little less than half said they would not be comfortable returning to the workplace until an effective treatment or vaccine is finalized.”

There’s also another unknown factor at play: the actions of co-workers and colleagues. “While I may be comfortable with how I have been quarantining, I may feel less confident about how well my co-workers have been quarantining,” Maughan says. “So, it’s the unknown behind the behavior of others that adds to uncertainty and a sense of discomfort returning to work.”

What it will take for employees to feel comfortable returning to work

While employees are hesitant to return to work, Maughan says that 80% trust their company’s leadership to make the best decision on when they should return to the workplace. Some of the other survey results provide clues regarding how organizations can help people feel more confident going back to work:

  • 93% of workers said it’s important that the company enforce social distancing practices.
  • 90% of workers say it’s important to them that the number of people in in-person meetings is limited.
  • 87% of workers say it is important to them that all employees at their company are required to wear masks.
  • 82% of workers said having more flexible sick leave policies would make it easier to keep themselves and others safe, as people wouldn’t feel like they “have to” come into work even if they felt ill.

How the pandemic is also affecting consumers

As much as the pandemic is affecting employees, it’s also affecting consumer behavior. “Darwin was right — evolution is the key to survival,” Maughan says. And he points to companies that are able to continue finding ways to deliver value to customers by developing new muscles and innovating their businesses.

In some cases, COVID-19 has accelerated trends that were already in motion. “We’ve seen a surge in grocery delivery, take out from restaurants, and telemedicine to take care of customers in a new and different way.” Maughan says he’s been even more impressed with companies that used to be in person only and are now innovating. “A favorite example is a local dance studio that, instead of shutting its doors, has found a way to take everything from classes to dance recitals to an online format.”

How companies can make employees and consumers feel comfortable

For companies that plan to bring employees — and entice customers — back to physical locations, Maughan provides three tips:

Prioritize health and safety. “It doesn’t matter if stores reopen or companies invite employees back to the office if no one feels confident returning.” He says protocols (like mask requirements and physical distancing) must be established and enforced. “Also, employees and customers will feel more comfortable if they know others are being responsible in their personal lives and interactions.”

Embrace digital work and digital commerce. One thing we’ve learned is that many employees can be effective and productive working from home. “However, they need the right workplace collaboration tools and support from their leaders,” Maughan says. “For shopping, every single business has to recognize that in-person traffic will be affected for a long time, so they need digital storefronts that provide a good experience.”

Continually listen and take action. We’re wading through unfamiliar waters, and there’s plenty to learn as we go. “The best companies have instituted continual listening programs to allow them to understand and act to iterate quickly and effectively to ensure that needs are being met and opportunities to surprise and delight are coming up regularly,” Maughan says. Companies that are disciplined enough to listen, and then act on what they hear, can develop a competitive edge. “These companies will attract loyal customers and the best employees long after the pandemic is over,” Maughan says.