Business

COVID-19 changed how we work. Will it stick?

Even as more people are forced to work from home during a phase of renewed lockdowns and COPVID-19 restrictions, many businesses are trying to plan for the next steps once the pandemic subsides.

Many employees say they want to continue working from home even after pandemic restrictions ease

For people around the world, their home has become a one-size-fits-all space for living, working and learning. Here Kristy Denette, back left, tries to work from home as her two children, Maverick, 5, and Peyton, 7, do online schooling at the kitchen table in their home in Mississauga, Ont., in early January. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

How we work was heating up to be an important debate long before the pandemic added rocket fuel to remote working capacity. Now, millions of people have spent the past 10 months in a pandemic-imposed trial. They have set up a corner of their home as an all-in-one office, school and living area.

Some love it. Pat Suwalski does not.

Suwalski is part of a historic shift in the job market. At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns in April, more than 40 per cent of those still working at least half their usual hours were working from home, according to Statistics Canada.

That number declined to around 26 per cent in September 2020 before "increasing slightly in the fall," the agency said.

"In three industries — professional, scientific and technical services; finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing; and public administration — working from home has remained at elevated levels," it said.

In areas such as education, which was affected by school shutdowns and the shift to remote learning early in the pandemic, only about a third of people were working from home by December compared to close to half in April.

City centres, like this one in Ottawa, are practically empty as many employees continue to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Morris/CBC)

The question among experts, economists and business owners is how many of them will return to their workplaces when the crisis is over.

"I'm pretty enthusiastic to get back to the office whenever it's possible to do so," said Suwalski, a developer for a small software firm called Vectorface in Ottawa.

Suwalski usually shares an office with 15 co-workers. Now, he shares a room with his son Jacob who's on a Zoom call with his kindergarten class. Meanwhile, his three-year-old daughter is at daycare.

Suwalski misses in-person meetings. He misses impromptu hangouts in the hallways. He even misses his commute.

"I'm in a car by myself," he said. "I can either listen to the radio or focus on my thoughts."

Suwalski thinks others will also want to return to their offices.

"I think, at best, we're going to go back to a partial in-office presence and then work from home as well," he said.

Software developer Pat Suwalski and his son Jacob share a work space in their home in Nepean, about 16 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. (Submitted by Pat Suwalski)

Demand for flexibility

It's not just employees pondering a return to the office.

Margaret Szots, a talent development manager with the City of Toronto, is also trying to figure out what the future will look like.

She was working on a way to give employees more flexibility before COVID-19 hit. 

"We know what many of the issues are because we're living them," she said.

The benefits are clear — people don't have to commute, they're saving money and they're saving time, she said.

However, the long-term impact remains mired in uncertainty, she said. 

"We were already on a trajectory to this new way of working," she said. "[The pandemic] pushed us that much more quickly ... We're not going back to the way we were."

San Diego-based Kate Lister, president of the Global Workplace Analytics consulting firm, predicted the pandemic would be "the tipping point for remote work." 

Early in the pandemic, she estimated, "25 to 30 per cent of the workforce would work from home multiple days a week when the threat was over."

"It felt like a bold assertion. Now, nearly nine months into the world's largest work-from-home experiment, if anything, I'm feeling my estimate might be low," she writes in a January 2021 report on remote work.

Margaret Szots, a talent development manager with the City of Toronto, works from her home. She's wondering what the future will hold for workplaces. (Submitted by Margaret Szots)

For employers, remote work has offered benefits such as reduced real estate costs, less absenteeism, lower employee turnover and increased productivity, the report found.

Looking ahead

Companies big and small are looking at their workforces now and trying to figure out how things will look in six months or a year.

Facebook said as many as half of its employees will work remotely for the foreseeable future.

In a virtual town hall meeting with employees in May, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that doesn't mean employees have permission to decamp to their hometowns or a beach somewhere.

"Your salary will be adjusted if you change location," he said, noting that's a long-standing policy. 

But people who want to work remotely won't be the challenge, he said. 

"It's going to be that there are more people who want to get back into the office than we can support," he said.

Avery Shenfeld, CIBC's chief economist in Toronto, agreed.

People have had ample opportunity to work from home for years, and Zoom has been around since 2013, he said.

"I keep hearing all these people [saying]: 'We're all going to work from home forever,'" he said. "No [we won't] because it's not effective."

When the pandemic hit, office towers such as these in Vancouver emptied out. Filling them up again will be more complicated. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At least it's not effective for everyone.

But that's not to say there will be a flood of people rushing back to their offices next spring or summer.

Even once restrictions loosen, it's not like giant office towers can just open the doors and let everyone back in.

"I don't think there will be a single moment when this COVID period is done," Zuckerberg said back in the spring, and the pandemic has only worsened since then.

Some health and safety restrictions will remain in place even as other broader restrictions are lifted.

Getting everyone to stay home was relatively simple. Finding a way to get them back to the office will be a much more complicated affair.

About the Author

Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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