An office with a truly open concept: why the pandemic can change work itself

As companies plan to gradually welcome workers into their offices, some employees are wondering if a hybrid arrangement is in their best interests. (Craig Chivers / CBC)

In March 2020, millions of Canadians left their desks to start working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic had put us under siege, and no one knew what to expect or for how long. For some it was an adventure; for the most part, a necessity; for many it was new… and not necessarily fun.

Now, with reopening plans underway and the number of Canadians receiving a second dose increasing week to week, workplaces are planning to migrate back to the office.

But it is already clear that things will not be quite the same as before.

In fact, there has been a lot of discussion online about the job itself, what needs to be done in formal offices, and what can be done remotely. Just as a lot of people can’t wait to get back to the old normalcy, a lot of others – and this ranges from grassroots business gurus – want things to be different.

Maybe even very different.

Dan Price, the founder of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, has been a lightning rod in business circles, especially since he cut his own salary by a million US dollars so he can pay a starting salary of $ 70,000 across his business. Price frequently accuses business elites of poorly paying their workers – and that includes forcing them to commute for long periods of time.

Last week, Price said it asked its workforce about returning to work and found that only 7% wanted to return. The others wanted to work remotely or in some kind of hybrid. “So we told everyone: do what you want” Price tweeted. “This stuff is not difficult.”

It’s an interesting prospect, but it might not be that easy to rethink the way work is done, either. There are, after all, pros and cons to all sides of the debate.

At CBC News, our newsrooms will revert to the model we are familiar with. They are, after all, meant to work with people working together, in an environment where decisions can be made quickly and collaboration is easy.

But other workplaces have different structures and needs. When chatting with friends and contacts who worked from home, things always seem to fluctuate. I will be curious to see what will happen in the coming year.

Most new telecommuters want choices, survey finds

According to a Statistics Canada snapshot taken in January, about 32 percent of Canadian employees did the majority of their work from home. This is truly remarkable, considering that only four percent of employees were doing this in 2016.

In other words, the pandemic has opened many eyes to the possibilities of teleworking.

WATCH | Workplace consultant Andrew Au chats with CBC’s Heather Hiscox about how the pandemic has changed assumptions about remote working:

Workplace culture consultant Andrew Au says many people who can work from home will want to continue to do so after the pandemic is over, which means some sort of hybrid between working from home and the office is here to stay. 10:30

Statistics Canada was obviously intrigued enough by the teleworking crowd to add a few questions about preferences to its subsequent February Labor Force Survey.

The results should be noted.

“Overall, 80% of new teleworkers said they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over,” the agency’s subsequent report said. He also noted that most home-based workers were at least as productive at home as they were in the office, although obstacles and issues – from feeling isolated to low internet bandwidth – were reported.

“This pandemic was about having more time at home,” a young father told me a few months ago as we spoke of a story. At the end of our conversation, which took place towards the end of the day, he got excited about getting ready to take his son for a walk. I was struck by how much he enjoyed this commute time as extra time with his family.

Interestingly, the Statistics Canada survey found that new teleworkers did not necessarily work less. In fact, 35 percent of those surveyed said they were working more hours than before. (Only three percent said they worked fewer hours.)

Expect hybrid models to develop

Personally, I can’t wait to be back in the office. I miss the hubbub and white noise of the editorial staff, the “hallway conversations” that spark ideas, the collaboration of being together. Video conferencing was great, but, yes, those screens can be exhausting.

But I can clearly see the value of hybrid models. A friend of mine in Ontario hopes that her employer will allow her to continue working from home, at least a good part of the week. Its average travel time is over two hours a day.

Working from home has opened the eyes of employers and employees to more flexible terms. (Looker_Studio / Shutterstock)

Working from home has not been a level playing field. It has already been well demonstrated that middle (and upper) class workers have benefited the most from this flexibility. Entry-level and low-income employees did not benefit the same choices. (As I wrote in a previous column, many frontline workers, including in supermarkets, had to take considerable risks during the pandemic.)

At this point, however, it seems clear that there will be no one-size-fits-all approach for the new workplace. My hunch is that the word “hybrid” will be used frequently as we work things out, paying attention to the needs of employers and the wants of employees.

Laurent Lapierre, who teaches at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, recently told CBC he was not surprised that employees want options.

“Some of the time makes sense,” he said. “All the time is a very different scenario.”

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