When will we stop working from home?

Millions of non-essential workers have been doing their jobs from home since the early days of the pandemic. But with vaccinations spreading among Canadians many may now wonder — when will I stop working from home?

Workers to stay home for 'foreseeable future,' federal agency says

A manager of a Toronto-based company is seen alone in the office in September 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

From accountants to computer programmers, from professors to admin assistants, millions of non-essential workers have been doing their jobs from home since the early days of the pandemic.

But with vaccinations spreading among Canadians many may now wonder — when will I stop working from home?

"A return to the workplace is really not on the radar right now," said Chris Aylward, national president of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents federal public servants across the country. The federal government is the country's largest employer with 300,450 employees as of March 2020, more than a third of them working in the National Capital Region.

Aylward says most of the union's members — with the exception of some critical workers like food inspectors and border agents — are still working from home.

"I certainly don't expect to see our members returning to work until we know for sure across the country ... that we have this pandemic under control," he said.

"We're not talking about any timeline." 

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Linda Duxbury, a management professor at Carleton University who has studied work-life balance, says not everyone wants to work remotely and even if they do, they may face other pressures — like child care — that impede productivity at home.

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

The board says, per guidance from public health authorities, most of its employees will work remotely "for the foreseeable future."

"Neither an announcement nor a fixed-date approach are being considered nor planned," it said in an emailed statement.

'Great source of conflict'

Laurent Lapierre, a professor with the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, says employees should have a seat at the table when employers discuss changing work from home arrangements.

"There's no question employees should have a say," said Lapierre, who specializes in workplace behaviour and health. "They should not, in my view, just sit passively."

He says both parties should be proactive about what they want. 

"Some people thrive working from home; for other people it's a significant source of stress," he said, adding that most proponents likely "have significant family demands at home, such as school-aged children."

Prof. Laurent Lapierre says, while some may prefer working from home, others want to go back to the office. (iStock/Getty Images)

He also notes it's against Ontario's Occupational and Safety Act to force an employee to work in an unsafe environment, such as where they might contract COVID-19.

"My crystal ball tells me that in many types of organizations where people were working from home … you're going to see a significantly greater openness to continued telework," Lapierre said. 

But Linda Duxbury, a business professor at Carleton University, says a return to the office "is going to be a great source of conflict between employers and employees."

Duxbury, who specializes in work-life balance and employee well-being, says according to a recent survey — which she conducted with her colleague Mike Halinsky — only one in five people say they want to go back to work in-person full-time. 

"Many employees don't ever want to go back full-time … Our data says they want a hybrid arrangement," she said.

Duxbury said "it would be very foolish" for employers to prematurely discuss bringing people back before the public health concerns are resolved.

"Employers should tread with caution," she said. "Just because we now say, 'Hey it's OK you can go back,' that doesn't mean people are going to believe it, or be comfortable with it."

Aylward, at PSAC, says a recent poll of its members shows many want to continue working from home. 

"The government has indicated working from home will be the way of the future," he said. "There's quite a savings."

The Treasury Board Secretariat agrees, and says its president is committed to flexible work arrangements.

"Research is ongoing to determine what form post-pandemic workplace flexibility will take," the board said in an email, adding that it will look at things like people's preferences, mental health, teamwork and productivity.

Ontario's Ministry of Health did not directly answer CBC's question on timelines.

What questions are on your mind as vaccination campaigns pick up across Canada? CBC Ottawa is answering one a day this week. 

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