Career consultant Sweta Regmi remembers the days when working from home was unfathomable to her.
If you had asked her years ago, when she was employed at a call centre, Regmi would have had a question of her own for you.
“Are you crazy?” Regmi, founder and CEO of Teachndo Career Consultancy in Sudbury, Ont., said, laughing at the distant memory.
But that was then — not today, when even her former colleagues at the call center have been working from home amid a pandemic-era pivot toward more flexible work.
Yet the proportion of Canadians who are working from home most of the time is decreasing, as the protective lid of public health restrictions is pulled back and businesses grow more confident about bringing their people back to the office.
That’s setting up tension with those employees who don’t want to go back to the way things were — but who will have to adjust if that’s what they must do.
A shifting landscape?
Statistics Canada reports that nearly one in five employed Canadians were still doing most of their work from home as of May.
That sounds like a lot, but it’s down from more than 24 per cent in January — and well down from what was reported during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ruel Tria has been working at home for more than two years. For him, the arrangement is just fine.
“Our business allows that,” said Tria, an operations supervisor who did all of his work in a Toronto office prior to the pandemic.
But that could change, as his workplace has sent out surveys asking about potential concerns employees might have about returning to the office.
Tria has been saving money while working at home, as well as the time he used to spend commuting.
“My concern is obviously the rising fuel costs,” Tria said, noting that’s just one cost that’s making the lives of commuters more expensive.
Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor of human resources in the department of management at the University of Guelph in southwestern Ontario, said there are various reasons employees are not keen on returning to the office — not all of them strictly financial in nature.
“Maybe someone moved away from the city, or maybe they sold the car, or maybe they don’t want to do the commute anymore, or maybe they’re realizing that the work politics and drama isn’t of interest to them anymore, Chhinzer told CBC’s Canada Tonight on Friday.
Beyond that, she said, there are varying views among people on what works best for them — including those who want to be back in the office more regularly — and that’s something employers have to wrestle with.
“The challenge for employers today is: How do they provide that flexibility but still create an environment where they can bring people together and kind of recreate the pulse of the workplace?” Chhinzer said.
People aren’t where they used to be
Cities are also feeling the effects of seeing fewer people make the trek into the office.
In Toronto, the return to the office has lagged and foot traffic in the downtown office core remains far below pre-pandemic levels.
Marcy Burchfield, vice-president of the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Economic Blueprint Institute, said the lengthy pandemic restrictions the city faced have shaped its rate of recovery.
“People across the Toronto region, they worked remotely for prolonged periods of times,” Burchfield said.
“There’s a direct relationship between how long a jurisdiction was locked down and the return of office trajectory. And Toronto is a perfect example of that.”
And that trajectory could remain slower than some businesses would like: Mark Rose, chief executive of the commercial real estate firm Avison Young, told the Globe and Mail this past week that a full, across-the-board return to the office is likely five years away.
Flexibility a key draw for some
Out on the East Coast, Paige Black is working in a new job that she specifically sought out because of the flexibility it offers in allowing her to work from home in Dartmouth, NS
She left her last job because that option was no longer going to be available in the same way.
Like Tria, Black used to work in an office before the pandemic. The non-profit professional admits she “wasn’t a huge fan” of working from home, at least initially.
But she soon found that more flexible work offered many advantages, including more control over her day-to-day life.
“I felt like I got more of my time back,” she said.
For Black and many others, that kind of flexibility is hard to beat.
“Nobody can put a price tag on flexibility,” said Regmi, the career consultant, summing up its worth to workers. “That’s priceless.”
At some larger organizations in Canada, there’s a recognition that flexibility is here to stay — and they’re focusing on what they need to do to support that.
At the Canada Life Assurance Company, for instance, the organization is aiming to support both its people and a range of working styles.
“Our approach to returning to the office is one that empowers our 11,000 employees to do their best work — wherever they are,” Colleen Bailey Moffitt, the company’s senior vice-president of human resources, said in an emailed statement.
Bailey Moffitt said Canada Life is “committed to supporting a hybrid, flexible way of working” and recognizes its teams and people have varying needs. It permits leaders to decide “which work style fits best for their team.”
But the insurance giant has also taken steps to make sure its various campuses and offices are welcoming to staff and fully equipped for their in-person work. And it has invested in those spaces over the past two years, including modernizing its meeting rooms and common spaces.
Other large employers have made similar investments to facilities over the course of the pandemic, as the changing long-term needs of their businesses have become apparent.
The federal government has also paid attention to the broader shift in how people — including its own public servants — are working.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal public servants proved their ability to adapt to new ways of working both on-site and remotely while delivering results for Canadians,” the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said in a statement.
The board said it does not have government-wide data available on the proportion of federal servants working on-site versus a remote setup, but it said “more and more employees are making their way into work sites on a regular basis.”
The experience of the past two-plus years will help guide the government in developing “flexible, hybrid workforce models as part of how and where public servants work in the future,” the board said.