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Remote, hybrid work creating schism as popular option unavailable to many workers

About 60 per cent of Canadian workers are required to be on-site, according to experts
A woman uses her computer keyboard in North Vancouver, B.C., on December 19, 2012. Remote work flourished during the pandemic as companies closed their offices, but it has created a schism among Canadian workers as the economy starts to reopen.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Employees like Matt Fairbanks are one of the reasons the hospitality and restaurant industry is struggling to find workers even as the pandemic wanes.

The 34-year-old former bartender has moved from slinging beers in Toronto to selling software to restaurants for a Saskatchewan company — which he does remotely.

“I was always kind of one foot out of the hospitality industry and the pandemic really showed me how vulnerable the work was and the instability of it all,” he said in an interview.

Gone are the harrowing commutes, while the additional flexibility has improved his work-life balance. Fairbanks’s company allows employees to work from out of the country for up to 90 days, take unlimited vacation and travel or work from anywhere in Canada.

“I’ve actually encouraged a lot of my friends from the restaurant industry to kind of look at other options and change kind of how they’re doing their life, too.”

Remote work flourished during the pandemic as companies temporarily closed their offices, but it has created a schism among Canadian workers. While 40 per cent of work in Canada can be done remotely, experts say, that means 60 per cent of workers are unable to access this benefit because they are required to be on-site.

And that can create resentment and a backlash from workers viewed as essential, such as nurses, ambulance workers and retail employees, who were applauded during the pandemic but are unable to realize the benefits that come from working remotely, said change management expert Linda Duxbury, a Chancellor’s Professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, who has studied remote work for decades.

“The problem we’re going to have here is we’re going to create two classes of workers — the haves and the have nots,” she said in an interview.

Those who can work remotely, particularly professionals such as accountants, lawyers and tech workers, flourished financially during the lockdowns while those forced to work on-site were often overworked or lost their jobs entirely amid reduced capacity and businesses that shuttered for good.

That second group was told they were valued and important “and now they don’t feel important,” Duxbury said.

The ability to work remotely has been one of the pivotal moments in the history of work, even though its application is generally limited to knowledge workers, said Erica Pimentel, assistant professor of accounting at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

“So when 60 per cent of the workforce is excluded from this massive change, well that’s obviously going to have some implications for society,” she said, because it’s very inconsistent in how it affects the population at large.

READ ALSO: Canadians working from home permanently should expect salary changes: experts

Duxbury cautions that the jury is still out on remote work, or what she calls “enforced work from home.” She constantly hears from businesses seeking best practices and examples of what others are doing. But she said it’s too early to assess the work style as everybody is experimenting with different models.

“Remote work during the pandemic was one big giant experiment. Now we’re moving to the second experiment, the follow up, which is hybrid work,” she said.

The appropriateness of remote work is very job dependent. It isn’t conducive to brainstorming, socialization, coaching, mentoring, onboarding, team-building and client satisfaction.

And while people who work from home put in far more hours — estimated at four to 10 additional hours per week — data suggests it hasn’t increased productivity, Duxbury said.

“Just because we worked 100 per cent remote for the last two plus years doesn’t mean it’s a sustainable model for a lot of people and a lot of jobs moving forward.”

Despite the drawbacks, remote work is being increasingly favoured, especially by generation Z, digital natives who have always had access to the internet and social media, said Pimentel.

This cohort is coming of age and joining the workforce with new attitudes about employers’ duty to them and how different parts of their lives fit together that is different from millennials, generation X and baby boomers, who are in many cases now the bosses.

“And so there’s this generational like mismatch between bosses and their employees and everybody is unhappy.”

Many companies would rather have employees return to the office full-time, but are facing stiff opposition from workers who have grown to like working from home, said Duxbury. Faced with record job vacancies amid decades-low unemployment rates and threats of resignations, employers have been forced to be flexible.

That means employees with a skill that’s in demand are able to negotiate better work conditions than somebody without those skills.

Tech workers, who accounted for most of the three per cent of Canadians who worked remotely before the pandemic, are among those in the driver’s seat now.

Demands to work remotely have gone from being the exception to the rule because it’s so hard to compete for talent, said Kristina McDougall, founder and president of executive search firm Artemis that specializes in tech employment.

“Unless there is an absolute reason why you physically need to be present, like you’re working on a robot or you need to be in the building, most organizations are having to be flexible,” she said.

The growth in remote work has also transformed where companies source their workforce because people can work anywhere and don’t have to be near a company headquarters. That widens the jobs an individual can consider, but it also gives companies a wider pool of candidates as well as increased competition with other potential suitors.

McDougall believes the movement to remote work is permanent for sectors like technology because the pandemic has proven that organizations can get things built with people working remotely.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. People are now finding it trivial that they might need to go into an office every day.”

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press

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