As economy recovers from pandemic doldrums, big employers step up push to get back to the office
Royal Bank and Amazon among companies requiring more face time at work
From a strong job market to the World Health Organization officially downgrading COVID-19's status as a global health emergency, signs that the economy is recovering from the pandemic are everywhere.
But there's perhaps no clearer one, in hollowed-out downtown cores across the country, than the sight of millions of office workers returning to cities after spending much of the past three years working from home.
The trend is undeniable. Cellphone data suggests that Canadian cities are now about half as full of people during the workday compared with before the pandemic. That's well up from under 10 per cent observed at various points since 2020, when the pandemic began and lockdowns were implemented.
While Canadian cities are still laggards compared with those in the United States, a number of major employers are trying to do what they can to close that gap.
3 days a week
After allowing its office employees to work from home during the pandemic, Canada's most valuable company, the Royal Bank of Canada, took a major step in mandating that, effective May 1, its staff come into the office at least three days a week, citing productivity concerns.
"I think that the absence of working together in many ways has led to productivity and innovation challenges, and society isn't back together enough and working enough," president and CEO Dave McKay said in explaining the decision.
RBC isn't the only company that thinks that. As of this week, e-commerce giant Amazon is doing the same thing, requiring virtually all staff to be in the office at least three days a week.
Bringing thousands of people back to the office — some of whom have never even been there because they were hired during the pandemic — is a complex problem, "so we're going to give the teams that need to do that work some time to develop a plan," Amazon's president and CEO, Andy Jassy, said.
Mackenzie Irwin, an employment lawyer with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto and Ottawa, said that's wise, because employers are risking legal headaches if they force changes to people's working conditions unreasonably.
"You've got to give your employees sufficient notice and time to make necessary arrangements in order to come back," she told CBC News in an interview.
Irwin said her office is being flooded with calls from employees hired during the pandemic who are now being asked to come into the office and want to know their rights.
The bad news? For most workers, the employer is on very solid ground in asking people to come back.
"For the majority of employees, if you started working remotely throughout the pandemic ... your employer does have a right to recall you back to the office," she said. "If your employment contract doesn't specifically state that your position is a remote position ... your employer does have a right to call you back."
Irwin said working from home during the pandemic was life-changing for workers — many of whom were able to lock in those gains by negotiating them in a contract when companies were desperate to find staff.
"But now we're seeing a switch, where there's a lot of downsizing, not a lot of hiring," she said. "It may be that we're coming into a scenario where that leverage is kind of lost for the employees."
Right vs. privilege
Linda Duxbury, a professor of management and strategy at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, said the current brouhaha over working from home boils down to a fundamental disagreement between workers and employers over whether it's a development that's good for the entire company or simply a perk that some workers get and others don't.
"After they've worked from home for two or three years, many people think it's a right," she said in an interview. "But many employers do not think it's a right, they think it's a privilege."
Duxbury said it's important to remember that working from home is a moot point for most people because a majority of them have jobs where it can't be done. But for the rest, the two sides are digging in because they don't agree on what the goals are.
"Back before the pandemic, when employers talked about productivity, it was really equated to hours at work, being available 24/7, working, being visible, never saying no, et cetera," she said in an interview.
Employees who are thriving by working from home say they're putting in as many hours as they were before and that their work output is the same if not more, Duxbury said.
"But employers have changed the definition of productivity. Now they're saying it's about creativity, innovation, social connection, culture."
The problem for employers, she said, is that there is very little empirical evidence to back up the theory that in-person collaboration is better for business — which makes workers who are meeting and exceeding the same work targets they've always had feeling needlessly aggrieved for being required to return to the office.
"We have to be able to have the discussion on productivity — not focusing on hours and availability — but focusing on output," Duxbury said.
With files from Nisha Patel and Laura MacNaughton