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Friday, September 24, 2021

Is remote work here to stay? In some form, yes, these experts say

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TORONTO — After more than 1.5 years of working from home, millions of people are facing the prospect of heading back to the grind in an office – but with work-life patterns upended during the pandemic, remote work in some form appears to be here to stay.

Employees with organizations such as Cenovus Energy, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and the federal government will likely be offered a flexible approach featuring some remote work options in the future.

As the country braces itself for a variant-driven fourth wave of the pandemic, visions and plans for work are expected to be fluid and to reflect a world where work can be done differently, according to T.J. Schmaltz, chair of the board of the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources.

“I think hybrid work arrangements will become more common,” Vancouver-based Schmaltz, whose organization represents 27,000 members across the country, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I think remote work, to some degree, is here to stay.”

Many of the country’s 311,700 public servants are still working remotely, and the federal government is exploring flexible arrangements, said Martin Potvin, spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada.

“Research is underway to determine what form post-pandemic workplace flexibility will take,” Potvin said in an email on Wednesday. “This research will take into account operational needs and workforce preferences, but will also include considerations of team cohesion, mental health, actual productivity and other factors.”

At Calgary-based Cenovus Energy, some employees in Western Canada are returning to offices in August and September.

“We’re planning to use a hybrid workplace flexibility model — with office staff able to work from home up to two days a week, role permitting,” Cenovus spokesperson Reg Curren said in an email Tuesday. “The new model will be implemented in September to coincide with the majority of our office returns and we will be assessing this approach over time to ensure it’s the best fit for our workplace.”

RBC declined to be interviewed for this article, but said many of its 61,000 employees in Canada are working from home. “RBC is taking a gradual, measured approach to return employees to RBC premises at the right pace, as conditions allow,” the bank said in an email Tuesday. “Hybrid work arrangements will be an option for many roles.”

While the country could be looking at a staccato reopening for workplaces, many companies are expected to take a flexible approach.

“No one wants to bring people back only to find they have to reverse course again,” said Ross Laver, senior vice president of the Business Council of Canada, which represents about 150 of the largest private-sector employers in the country.

“Unfortunately, we’ve all realized that nobody has a crystal ball that relates to expectations around remote work, but there’s much more flexibility and openness to it now than there was pre-pandemic,” Laver said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The Business Council asked about 100 companies in late May and early June what their main concerns were about working from home after the pandemic. The top three were: maintaining organizational culture; less creativity and communication among staff; and mental health.

Paula Allen of LifeWorks, a wellness solutions firm formerly known as Morneau Shepell, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that we are currently in a high-risk period for mental health.

People who started to work from home due to the pandemic have had the biggest disruption to their work lives and are still facing stressful change, said Allen, global leader and senior vice president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks.

In addition to that, the pandemic has had a negative effect on mental health overall, Allen said, adding it will take at least as long as the pandemic to recover from it.

“People are wanting to exert as much choice as possible,” Allen said, adding that they’ve lost a lot of control during the pandemic and are trying to reassert it as they consider returning to workplaces.

Companies can help by being flexible, giving people time to adapt to changes and offering them resources, she said.

Being clear about plans is also important.

However, according to a LifeWorks survey conducted online between May 28 and June 4 among 3,000 Canadian respondents, about one-quarter of employees don’t know what their organization is planning and 12 per cent don’t think their employer has a plan.

Employees who believe their employer will have a flexible approach to remote work had the most favourable mental health score, according to the survey.

“Hybrid work appears to be what most people are looking for,” she said.

The hybrid model appears to be the best option and the direction in which most companies are headed, Erica Pimentel, an assistant professor in the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, told CTV’s This Morning in an interview on Tuesday.

“Employees have been working from home for over 500 days now,” Pimentel said. “The main benefits for employees really come down to flexibility and work-life balance.”

Whatever happens going forward, the best scenario should be win-win for employers and employees, she said. 

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