No clear picture what work will look like post-pandemic

Employers are grappling with what a return to work will look like when the pandemic ends and whether people will be allowed to continue to work from home, return to the office or a hybrid of the two.

Working from home during the pandemic was an emergency measure, not normal 'telework,' says expert

Researchers, employers and Canada's largest public sector union all say workers want to continue working at least partially from home even when pandemic restrictions are lifted. (Looker_Studio/Shutterstock)

Employers are grappling with what a return to work will look like when the pandemic ends and whether people will be allowed to continue to work from home, return to the office or a hybrid of the two.

At discount retailer Giant Tiger, the "new normal" will look different, said Tova White, senior vice-president and chief human resources officer.

Giant Tiger's 500 support staff in Ottawa and Montreal — people who don't work directly with customers in stores or in warehouses  — will have the option to talk to their managers about a so-called work-your-way model. 

"Depending on your role, [it] gives employees some flexibility as to where and when they do their work. We think this is a great driver for engagement," White said.

Canadian retailer Giant Tiger is allowing employees to work from home when their responsibilities don't require they go to the office. (Sara Heinonen)

She said there's a strong preference among employees for a "hybrid" model that allows to work from home or the office, though preferences have shifted over the last 16 months. 

"People do still want the connection of working in an office with their colleagues, just maybe not every weekday."

White said the hybrid model will also allow people who are still worried about their health to ease back into the workplace.

Telework to continue in public service

The federal public service won't be flooding back to their buildings any time soon, and any return to in-office work will be based on the requirements of individual departments and public health guidance. Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos has previously said teleworking will be a more permanent feature of the bureaucracy.

In a statement, the Treasury Board Secretariat said employees who can work remotely will continue to do so "for the foreseeable future." 

Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said the union wants to ensure appropriate COVID-19 protocols, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment will be available when staff begin to return to the workplace.

The federal government has not announced a timeline for when public servants may be returning to offices in downtown Ottawa. (Christian Patry/Radio-Canada)

Staff have the right to refuse dangerous work under the Canada Labour Code, but exercising that right can require a lengthy process, Aylward said.

"We're certainly not encouraging our members to go that route. They need to talk to their manager if they don't feel comfortable and try to find alternative work arrangements," he said.

"If that's teleworking, then that's what we're suggesting."

Aylward said about 75 per cent of his union's membership is currently working from home and 80 per cent of those people want to continue doing so in some form. 

A privilege, not a right

Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, said some people may be surprised when they try to arrange remote work.

"It's still not a right. It's a privilege to work from home," Duxbury said to Alan Neal, host of CBC Ottawa's All In A Day.

"That being said, a lot more people are entitled to the privilege of working from home than were provided that opportunity before the pandemic."

Duxbury said employees, especially younger ones, are becoming more assertive in negotiating their work arrangement.

She described the return to the workplace in "uncharted territory" for human resource professionals because, while the pandemic has shown people can be productive from home, working in the post-pandemic normal won't be the same thing.

"It's not telework, it's been emergency work from home. We dump people there. Now a lot of people want that," she said.