New Brunswick

Pandemic proves employees can work from home, but will it last?

The pandemic forced employers to rethink the way — and from where — employees do their work. But will remote working extend beyond the pandemic?

Majority of workers want to continue working from home

When workers were sent home at the beginning of the pandemic, some had to juggle work and children because daycares were also closed. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Within 10 days of the start of the global pandemic, 4.7 million Canadians made the shift to working from home — bringing the total number of Canadians working from home to 40 per cent. 

There was talk at the time of how the pandemic may force employers to revolutionize the workplace. A year ago, even Premier Blaine Higgs said government would look at what they learned in the early days of the pandemic to see how they could do things differently. 

That openness to change seems to have been short-lived. 

Only about seven per cent of provincial government employees are currently working from home, according to figures provided by the province. Compare that to the height of the pandemic when nearly all government employees were sent home. 

As two of the province's largest private employers, Irving Oil and J.D. Irving Ltd. were both asked for similar statistics. While Irving Oil's corporate communications manager has yet to acknowledge the requests sent since April 30, JDI did provide the requested information.

At the height of the lockdown, 19 per cent of JDI's workforce was working from home. Now it's less than one per cent. 

80 per cent want to work from home

If employees had their way, most of them would continue to work from home. 

According to a Statistics Canada report released last month, 80 per cent of new teleworkers would like to continue working from home once the pandemic is over — at least part of the time. 

Statistics Canada surveyed Canadians who had been working for the same employer at least a year before the pandemic and were still working remotely in February. 

Forty-one per cent said they would prefer working about half of their hours at home, while 39 per cent would prefer working most or all of their hours at home. 

The remaining 20 per cent would prefer working most or all of their hours outside the home.

Laurent Lapierre is a professor of workplace behaviour and health at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. (Submitted by Laurent Lapierre)

A professor of workplace behaviour and health at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management isn't surprised by the numbers.  

Laurent Lapierre said, "Part of the time makes sense. All of the time is a very different scenario."

He said many employers prefer to keep employees in the office where they can monitor them. But the pandemic proved that work can be done from home, so he doesn't see things returning to pre-pandemic levels of working at an office either. 

"I think there is a case to be made that some degree of telework — working from home — is going to be viewed as much more permissible than how it was viewed prior to the pandemic."

Whose decision is it anyway?

Lapierre said employers always hold the power over an employee's working conditions. 

"But management would be foolish to one-sidedly decide without involving the impacted employees in the decision-making process. They would be foolish to do that."

Nor, he said, should employers assume that all workers want to continue doing their jobs from home — many prefer the workplace. 

Lapierre said the best approach is for employers to consult with their people before making that decision. He said it comes down to the nature of the work and whether an employee's physical presence is required at the office. 

"There's a distinction to be made between actual requirement for physical presence, because the task demands it, and preference for physical presence." 

Lapierre said employers and employees should weigh the pros and cons.

Working from home, for example, is more problematic for those who have trouble managing their time, and for those with "more demanding personal lives," like those with school-aged children who arrive home mid-afternoon. 

"It's not for everyone," he said.  

Twenty per cent of new teleworkers say they've had enough of working from home. (Shutterstock / Girts Ragelis)

Even those who can work productively from home often miss the social interaction — not just the non-work chitchat, but the impromptu work conversations that often spur new ideas, he said. 

"Some jobs require having very easy access to colleagues — without having to schedule an appointment or call at the risk of bothering them," said Lapierre.

On the other hand, employers can save money by not having to maintain a work site, he said. Plus, there are extraneous advantages to having employees work from home, including the environmental benefits associated with eliminating the daily commute. 

A 'much-needed jolt' into telework

Maxim Voronov said the desire to work from home isn't new, but employers have generally been reluctant to allow it. 

Many "have a hard time trusting employees," said Voronov, a professor of organization studies at York University's Schulich School of Business.  

But when COVID-19 hit, they had little choice. 

"So until the pandemic came and kind of gave them this jolt — I'd say much-needed jolt — there was always these ongoing discussions about 'how can we do this?'

"Thanks to the pandemic, we learned that apparently it's not that complicated." 

Maxim Voronov, a professor of organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said employers often have a tough time trusting employees. (Submitted by Maxim Voronov)

Workers report being more productive at home

Voronov said "a pretty significant majority" of new teleworkers would like to continue working from home. 

And a peek at productivity seems to bolster their case. 

"From what I've seen, there hasn't really been any evidence of decreased productivity among employees," Voronov said. 

In fact, he said the opposite seems true. 

The Statistics Canada report released last month revealed that employees felt more productive at home. Ninety per cent of them reported being "at least as productive" at home as they were previously at their usual place of work.

A study released by Statistics Canada last month reveals 80 per cent of new teleworkers want to continue working from home at least part of the time. (Stanley Leary/Associated Press)

Only 10 per cent believed they accomplished less work at home than they did at their place of work.

They did, however, also report working longer days.

Almost half of those who reported getting more work done also said they worked more hours per day. 

Although it's up to employers to sign-off on telework, Voronov believes it will become a bargaining chip in the workplace, and employers will be forced to allow it in order to attract and retain good people. 

"I do think this is one of those things that clever employers will probably figure out — that as a part of their value proposition to the employees and to retain high-potential employees, they may actually emphasize their flexibility and willingness to let them work remotely," said Voronov. 

Remote working means different things — locations, attire, hours — to different people. (El Nariz / Shutterstock)

As for JDI, the company's vice-president communications, Anne McInerney, said the pandemic showed them that "a number of our jobs can be done productively from home with the technology we have today.

"We also learned that virtual working can be challenging where collaborating and innovating are important."

She said company officials are taking what they learned over the last year and are trying to be more flexible about where people work in the future "in a way that works for our people and our business."

While some employees have asked to continue working from home, McInerney said others were eager to return to the office. 

"Some of our employees learned that they do not like working from home and were excited to return to the office, when it was safe to do so," she said. 

Most federal workers still at home

The federal government is the country's largest employer with 300,450 employees as of March 2020

Most unionized members — with the exception of some critical workers like food inspectors and border agents — are still working from home, said Chris Aylward, national president of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents federal public servants across the country. 

"A return to the workplace is really not on the radar right now," said Aylward. 

He said PSAC talks to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, essentially the federal public service's general manager, every two weeks about the situation.

In a statement emailed to CBC, the board said most of its employees will work remotely "for the foreseeable future."

"Neither an announcement nor a fixed-date approach are being considered nor planned," the email stated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

With files from Priscilla Hwang

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