Montreal

Working from home is a nightmare for some Quebecers, a blessing for others

For many people, the office has been a room, or a corner, in their home since March 2020. After almost two years, it's becoming clear that some people are thriving and others are having trouble dealing with its challenges.

Pandemic-driven work changes are tough on new hires, parents with children at home

Veronique Piercey sets up her home office after moving to a new condo in May 2021.

When Véronique Piercey sits down to her remote job as senior paralegal at a Montreal hospitality firm, the first thing she does is put on ambient office noise from a mindfulness app to help her focus.

"I deeply, deeply miss going into the office," said Piercey. "I love people and I love being around people," even though she hasn't yet met any of her team members in person.

When it comes to choosing which they prefer — working from home or heading into a workplace — Quebecers are divided. Some enjoy not having to commute, while others miss the impromptu water-cooler conversations at the office.

Either way, remote work will be here to stay in some form after the pandemic, says Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a professor of organization and human resources at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She suggests two or three days a week of remote work is optimal for productivity.

But whether employees actually enjoy remote work is another story. Statistics on whether Canadians prefer working from home are inconclusive.

In mid-December, when the provincial government recommended that Quebecers return to working from home amid rising COVID-19 case counts, many wondered whether a full return to work would ever be possible.

Working from home isn't for everyone

How you feel about remote work depends on a range of factors: whether you are new or a seasoned veteran, whether you are an employee or a manager — and what responsibilities you have at home.

Remote work tends to be especially difficult for new employees like Piercey.

It's hard to develop a sense of belonging when you haven't met your colleagues in person, says Charles-Étienne Lavoie, PhD candidate in work and organizational psychology at UQAM.

"They're going to have a little bit of a harder time building an emotional commitment and sense of belonging with the organization," Lavoie said.

Starting a new job remotely means that an employee can feel disconnected from the company and their co-workers, says Sabrina Pellerin, PhD candidate in human resource management at UQAM.

"It can be trickier for the employees to figure out how to work effectively," Pellerin said.

Managers face their own set of challenges, coping with varying schedules and employees needs. (Getty Images/istockphoto)

Managers face challenges

Managers may feel pulled in a lot of different directions. They need to help employees adapt to remote work, provide them with the necessary resources, motivate them from a distance, and monitor their mental health — all the while preserving their own, said Pellerin.

"We think that managers, because they hold positions of authority, are in control all the time," she said. "But they're human. Organizations tend to forget that."

Managers need the appropriate resources to do their own work to the best of their ability, said Lavoie. For example, they need training on how to manage a team with non-uniform work weeks.

Pellerin says that remote work can be beneficial if an organization trusts its workers to stay on task while at home.

But some employers have even gone so far as to implement tracking software to keep tabs on what staff are doing while on the clock. "I'm against that," Pellerin said. "It signals that the employer doesn't trust the employee."

Overall, worries about shirking are unfounded, Lavoie said.

"People who do telework tend to work more hours," he said. In fact, since employees who work from home tend to overcompensate, the bigger problem being overwork, rather than slacking off.

Working from home can be especially difficult for parents of young children. (Radio-Canada)

This has made some people question whether the nine-to-five structure is necessary at all, and whether a results-only work environment would be preferable.

Effective remote work requires a shift in culture, Lavoie said. Employees and managers need to be better attuned to each other's needs, and acutely aware of any worrisome changes in the mood and behaviour of their colleagues.

Feeling safer at home

For some, the office won't be more attractive than working from home until the risk of contracting COVID-19 is near zero.

Web producer Patrick Lavery went back to work at his software company, Autodesk, when it opened in a hybrid capacity in October. "It felt like I was getting back to normal," he said. Then someone tested positive, and he started working remotely again.

"I certainly would not want to go back to the office unless it was assured that everyone had received their booster," he said. "Before any of that, I want to see the hospitalizations and infection rate drop."

Monica Dedich, a senior manager for content and communications, says it's hard to juggle the demands of work and two small children. (Submitted by Monica Dedich)

For those with young children, the office provides a place free from distraction.

Monica Dedich, senior manager for content and communications for a tech education company, says that her work is constantly interrupted by her children, who are three- and five-years-old.

"It's exhausting," she said. "You're switching gears every few minutes. It's hard to stay on task."

Remote work has exacerbated gender inequality, making women more likely to feel depressed, stressed, and burnt-out from juggling home and work responsibilities.

Though Dedich enjoys the flexibility offered by working from home, she thinks that remote work and school closures are not a good mix.

"Mentally it's an incredible load to carry," she says. "Long term, I don't think it's tenable."

Dedich says no one is exempt from the difficulties of online work – even those who don't have kids are struggling. "It's hard. This is all really hard for all of us, and for different reasons."

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