New Normal: Is the great shift to working from home here to stay?

By | June 15, 2020

TORONTO — When Camille Peters closed up her Mississauga, Ont. office and sent her staff of 12 to work from home, she didn’t know just how well it would work out.

The co-owner of software development company Mobile Computing Corp. Inc. says her employees have boosted their productivity and eliminated lengthy commutes.

It’s worked out so well at Mobile Computing, that the company will now flip from working from home one day a week before COVID-19 to working in the office one day a week after the pandemic.

“I still think there is a lot of value in looking at each other face to face. I think we can start to feel out of touch without it. So that will be our new norm.”

Peters and her staff are among millions of Canadians who suddenly couldn’t go to work when the pandemic hit in mid-March and had to figure out how to do their jobs from home.

According to Statistics Canada, 40 per cent of Canada’s workers found themselves working from home as pandemic lockdowns were enforced. That compares to less than 10 per cent in 2018 who had the option to work a day or two a week from home.

‘PROFOUND UPHEAVAL’

“We’ve seen a profound upheaval in work. There hasn’t been a disruption like this since the Great Depression,” says Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant based in Kelowna, B.C.

He says most employers have not responded to growing demands for flexibility from employees, who want more control over their working hours, shortened work weeks, and less time spent in the office.

Some of the resistance is just inertia, but much of it stems from the reluctance of executives and managers to trust the productivity of staff when they can’t be seen working.

Lowe says if there is anything clear in this pandemic, it’s that most workers have continued to get the job done, even in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and sometimes without a proper office set-up or reliable internet, and while battling the distractions of kids, pets and spouses at home.

Experts say working from home has pros and cons. In the pros column: no stressful, time-consuming and costly commute, more flexibility in managing family or life tasks, more autonomy, better quality of life, and better concentration. The cons include loneliness, feeling disconnected from a team, more difficulty in turning off from work, and reduced supports and lack of mentorship.

NO GOING BACK

David Zweig, who teaches organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto, says this public health emergency has “ripped a lid off” how we approach work and the workplace.

“In a tremendously short time, we have dropped the wall between work and home life and we have continued to be productive,” says Zweig, from his home office in Toronto.

There will be no going back.

He predicts some employers will require or encourage employees to work from home, at least part-time, both to manage physical distancing in the short term and reduce real estate costs in the long term.

But in many cases, it will be employees driving the conversation, he says. Some won’t feel safe to come back while others will be breaking down the doors.

Ultimately, most will want a hybrid work life – the best of both worlds in which they come into work some days and work remotely on other days.

Robyn Baxter, vice-president of workplace strategy and innovation at Colliers International, says the jury is still out on just how far employers will be willing to go.

She says this period of upheaval likely won’t be around long enough to really convince the work-from-home skeptics that they are wrong. In other words, it was good enough in an emergency, but not for a long-term shift.

A LACK OF TRUST

So rather than a transformation in remote working, Baxter foresees incremental change. After all, the concept and much of the enabling technology have been around for about 20 years and many companies have created offices with fewer desks than people as they tried to shrink their square footage.

“But still people felt the need to be in the office to be seen or because they had a fear of being left out of decisions or discussions if they’re not there. And then on top of that, some employers don’t trust that their employees are working.”

That worries Zweig.

He fears that more remote working will come with digital surveillance by distrustful employers. That can come through tracking time and activity on a company portal and through apps on employee computers that monitor how long keyboards have been idle or time on social media or other non-work related tasks, he says. Tallying time on various applications is a very weak measure of productivity, but it’s also much easier for employers to track and monitor than it is to provide supports to employees to help them be more productive, he says.

“I think it speaks to the idea that employees aren’t trusted at all,” he says.

Surveillance just leads to some employees working to get around it and to lower morale and higher turnover overall, says Zweig.

NEVER TURNING OFF

Another big hurdle in working from home is work-life balance, says Paula Allen, vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at human resources provider Morneau Shepell. That may seem counterintuitive, but she says some people find it hard to turn off when there is no leaving the office at the end of the day.

For them, working from home has been exhausting.

Allen says some employers with staff working at home have shifted from worrying about employee productivity to worrying about burnout.

“Lots of people are working longer hours. They take an extra meeting or they finish up something rather than racing for the (commuter) train.”

Zweig tells the faculty and staff he manages as chair of the Department of Management not to respond to his messages until their working hours – even if he is working into the night. He also reminds them to take breaks. He says his wife, a professor at Ryerson University, could work 18 hours straight if he let her.

“It really takes discipline to turn off … It’s so easy to just keep working, especially when you’re at home, but burnout comes from that.”

PRODUCTIVITY IS COMPLICATED

A 2015 study found that call-centre employees in China who worked from home were 13 per cent more productive than those who didn’t. They took fewer breaks and made more calls per minute, the research out of Stanford University found. They also reported higher levels of happiness and were less likely to quit.

But Baxter at Colliers wonders about productivity measures.

The company surveyed 5,000 staff members and found about 80 per cent felt they were just as productive or more productive working from home but Baxter says it’s more complicated for her.

She’s been more productive working from home when it comes to analyzing data or writing reports, but when it comes to brainstorming or coming up with new ideas, or connecting for teamwork, the stuff she says really drives results, she says that has been more difficult and more time-consuming to try to navigate online.

Zoom is great, but it can’t replace being together in a room with a white board and sticky notes.

“Doing that kind of thing online has been a beast.”

HAPPIER EMPLOYEES

When Peters at Mobile Computing did a drive-around to have a physically distanced visit with each employee a couple of weeks ago, she found every one of them were enjoying the hours in their day they used to spend stuck in traffic. Some were revelling in eating lunch with their kids.

They told her they would like to work from home way more often.

She uses the roughly three hours a day she once spent driving between the office and her Dundas, Ont. home playing guitar, gardening, cooking and engaging in idle chit chat with partner and neighbours. Those are luxuries for someone who spent every working day rushing out of the house.

The company is in no rush to get back to the office right now. Peters says it’s just not worth the risk, no matter how small and no matter how much she’s eager to work alongside her colleagues again. They may even wait for a vaccine.

And at some point, it may make sense to rent meeting space rather than maintaining an office anymore, but Peters says she and her business partner aren’t rushing to a decision on that.

In the meantime, they’ve provided proper desks and chairs and bigger monitors so that employees could make the most out of working from home.

“It was a small investment to make sure everyone was comfortable.”

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