Workers want a flexible future at work. What do employers want?

Across Canada, employers are trying to work out what's best for their organizations in a post-pandemic era and how that will affect the people who work for them.

Employers are trying to map out post-pandemic plans

Across Canada, employers are trying to map out what's best for their organizations in a post-pandemic era, in terms of how they'll structure their working arrangements. (Southworks/Shutterstock)

In the past 12 months, Noah Arney changed jobs, moved provinces and returned to the office.

In doing so, he's benefited from both office life and home-based work — including when he started his new job in Kamloops, B.C.

"I was able to to change jobs without having to move my family in January — and if you've ever been in Calgary in January, it's a good thing not to have to do that," said Arney, a career development professional, who actually moved to B.C. months later.

Noah Arney, a B.C.-based career development professional, has seen the advantages of both working at home and in an office setting. (Submitted by Noah Arney)

Now, Arney is working in an office again and that suits him, too, as he builds new connections and gets up to speed in his new job.

"It's been a strange experience, but I've really enjoyed it," said Arney.

Across Canada, employers are trying to map out what's best for their organizations in a post-pandemic era, in terms of how they'll structure their working arrangements going forward and how that will affect employees.

Yet employers are under pressure to embrace a more flexible future, and it seems some larger organizations are listening.

More flexibility

At Microsoft Canada, there's an expectation the future will be different for its more than 4,000 Canadian employees.

"We believe extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace," Microsoft spokesperson Lisa Gibson told CBC News via email.

A Microsoft Canada spokesperson told CBC News that the company believes 'flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.' The company employs more than 4,000 people in Canada. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Gibson said Microsoft was equipped for remote work before COVID-19 and some of its staff did work outside the office occasionally. But she said the pandemic saw "the overwhelming majority" work from home full-time.

As the pandemic eases and the company fully reopens its operations, the majority of staff will be able to work from home at least half the time — and they won't need managerial approval to do so.

The tech sector is one where most jobs can be done remotely. The people seeking those jobs know that, and a lot of them want that flexibility.

Karen Agulnik, a senior account manager with Toronto-based ARES Staffing Solutions, says that hybrid has become "the buzzword," particularly in the IT sector. But other sectors have a mix of positions with varying suitability for remote working arrangements.

Some types of employment lend themselves to remote work more easily than others. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

Alberta's ATB Financial has had a mix of arrangements during the pandemic.

Staff working in branches have continued working on-site — albeit with necessary COVID-era adjustments — while staff whose roles could be done remotely were asked to work at home.

For corporate team members still working at home, the goal is for them to spend more time in the office as soon as mid-January.

In an emailed statement, Tara Lockyer, ATB's chief people officer, said the financial institution, which employs more than 5,000, has "a strong desire" for its corporate team members to work in the office at least some of the time.

Who has control?

Yu-Ping Chen, an associate professor in the department of management at Montreal's Concordia University, believes there are a number of downsides to working from home — and in his view, they outweigh the advantages.

Yu-Ping Chen, an associate professor at Concordia University, says some companies with people working at home during the pandemic are feeling a loss of control. (Submitted by Yu-Ping Chen)

The negatives include distraction and fatigue stemming from long periods of working online, a blurring of the lines between work and home life, as well as pressure to be responsive to work demands outside of office hours.

Meanwhile, Chen said, employers "are feeling a loss of control" amid a redistributed, home-based workforce.

And with millions of Canadians now used to working at home, it's clear that regaining that control may face some pushback from employees.

"Some of them ... are just so used to working from home," said Chen, who predicts some portion of the workforce will never return to the office, even after the pandemic recedes.

Not the same at home

For Agulnik, a veteran recruiter, working from home is not a problem.

But she thinks it's a different story when it comes to training new people, as they need more in-person attention.

Younger people taking their first steps in a career are the very people Arney works with as a career services co-ordinator.

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From what he's seen, the incoming recruits don't seem to have "a definite preference one way or the other" when it comes to working from home or in an office.

But they are weighing the advantages of being in an office at a crucial time in their working lives.

"I think a lot of them really do want to have those one-to-one, in-person interactions," said Arney, noting a lot of workplace learning takes place during informal, face-to-face conversations.

"But the pandemic's not over and I think they're very aware of that."

Listening to feedback

At Klick Health, a health marketing company that employs more than 1,000 people in Canada and the United States, most employees are still working from home.

That balance is shifting a bit, as a limited number of employees have voluntarily returned to in-person work.

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"More and more are choosing to come into the office, notably to collaborate on projects," Glenn Zujew, the company's chief people officer, told CBC News in an emailed statement.

Zujew said internal surveys have indicated at least 35 per cent of Klick staff aren't "quite ready" to come back to in-person work yet, while "many" want to be back in the office eventually.

The company will soon be launching listening sessions "to dig deeper into these areas."

ATB Financial's Lockyer said there's a recognition that some work can be done better in a remote setting, while other kinds of work "need more collaboration and interaction."

ATB Financial, which employs more than 5,000 people in Alberta, has 'a strong desire' for its corporate team members to work in the office at least some of the time. (Submitted by ATB Financial)

To that end, the company is talking to its leaders and team members to understand "where the work is best done."

At Microsoft, Gibson said the company has been hearing that workers want to be able to collaborate more directly with their colleagues, but also want to retain their remote working capabilities.

"We refer to this trend as the hybrid work paradox — whereby employees want the flexibility of remote work as well as the inspiration and ease of in-person collaboration," said Gibson.

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