At the beginning of 2021, 32 per cent of Canadian employees worked most of their hours from home, compared with only 4 per cent in 2016. As we start to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, millions of Canadians could resume working in their offices on a regular basis in the very near future, leaving employers across the country with a significant challenge and opportunity.
“The rise in remote work will have society-wide impacts and provides us with a rare real-time opportunity to learn something new about work and introduce changes that benefit us all.”
- from the Conference Board of Canada report "Remote, Office, or Hybrid?" co-authored by Carleton's Linda Duxbury
COVID-19 represents a watershed moment, changing forever how and where people work. As companies and organizations attempt to figure out whether staff should continue working at home full-time or part-time, or if everybody should be back onsite, they need data and direction to make the right decisions.
“We’re at a demarcation point,” says work-life balance and change management expert Linda Duxbury, the Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. “The whole system has been destabilized and everything is possible now.”
What employers and employees needed was a guide for how to manage talent amid this new reality. Duxbury recognized this need and, in partnership with the Conference Board of Canada, she and her former PhD student Michael Halinski co-authored a report that examined employee preferences around remote, hybrid and in-office work arrangements.
While the pandemic showed that remote work is possible, it does not mean that working at home can replace office work. Moreover, the transition that’s underway is extremely complex because there are so many different employment sectors and types of jobs, not to mention the wide spectrum of individual circumstances.
The Future of Remote Work
Duxbury’s examination of more than 26,000 survey responses from Canadians revealed a rich diversity of experiences and a significant difference of opinion around work preferences going forward.
For many, working from home eroded work-life balance and dramatically increased stress, anxiety and insomnia. Some are looking forward to a full-time return to the office, while others would prefer to remain fully remote. Which explains why even within a single organization or company, a one-size-fits-all solution may not be realistic.
“There’s no playbook for what’s happening,” says Duxbury.
“Managers are going to have to have some honest discussions with employees, who have developed a new set of working habits over the past two years. Organizations and employees need to be willing to compromise on how work will be structured post-pandemic.”
Even if management and staff agree on a hybrid arrangement, however, determining how many days each week are for remote work, as well as which days and whether all employees have to stick to the same schedule, presents a new set of challenges.
“How do you manage a hybrid team?” asks Duxbury, noting that while there are advantages to in-person work, such as brainstorming and relationship building, some tasks can be done well from home.
“It’s much easier to manage a workforce when everybody is remote or everybody is in the office.”
Her suggestion is to gain an in-depth understanding of who is on a workplace team and what the team does, and then come up with a “sweet spot”—the number of days each week that people should be onsite together.
This approach requires communication and flexibility from both employers and employees, which is one of the keys to making the transition to the new work world as smooth as possible.
Duxbury calls for employers and employees to adopt a test-and-learn mindset—experimenting with and piloting new approaches to work as individuals, business units and organizations. In other words, the report states, they must be “willing to start from scratch, question everything and make intentional decisions with a clear, evidence-based rationale.”
“Leaders need to admit that this is all new for them as well,” says Duxbury.
“That’s leadership. While employees need to compromise, there are multiple views out there and no one is likely to get exactly what they want.”
In addition to managing this shift, employers are going to have to find new ways to measure productivity. Remote workers tended to put in longer hours during the pandemic, letting tasks creep into their evenings and weekends, but that didn’t necessarily translate into an increase in output.
As life normalizes—with children back at school and the stress of a global virus diminishing—employees are going to have to find a healthy work-life balance and employers are going to have to figure out how to assess their contributions.
Underlying this transformation is a nationwide talent shortage. In many sectors, employers are competing to recruit and retain staff, which means they may need to take a step back, review their overarching goals as an organization, familiarize themselves with the pros and cons of various work arrangements, and map out a new path.
As Duxbury’s report declares, “The rise in remote work will have society-wide impacts and provides us with a rare real-time opportunity to learn something new about work and introduce changes that benefit us all.”
Click here to download the report at no cost: Remote, Office or Hybrid? Employee Preferences for Post-Pandemic Work Arrangements