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

·5 min read
As companies make plans to gradually welcome workers back to their offices, some employees wonder if a hybrid arrangement is in their best interests. (Craig Chivers/CBC - image credit)
As companies make plans to gradually welcome workers back to their offices, some employees wonder if a hybrid arrangement is in their best interests. (Craig Chivers/CBC - image credit)
Craig Chivers/CBC
Craig Chivers/CBC

In March 2020, millions of Canadians left their offices to start working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic had put us under siege, and no one knew what to expect, nor for how long. For some, it was an adventure; for most, a necessity; for many, it was a novelty … and not necessarily a fun one.

Now, with reopening plans underway and the numbers of second-dosed Canadians climbing by the week, workplaces are planning for the migration back to the office.

But it's already apparent that things won't be quite the same as they were before.

In fact, there have been numerous debates online about work itself, and what needs to be done inside formal offices and what can be done remotely. Just as many people can't wait to get back to the old normal, plenty of others — and this runs from business gurus to the rank and file — 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, particularly since he cut his own salary by $1 million US so he could pay for a $70,000 starting wage across his company. Price frequently calls out business elites for paying their workers poorly — and that includes forcing them to commute for long periods.

Last week, Price said he surveyed his workforce about returning to work, and found that only seven per cent want to come back. The rest wanted to work remotely or in some kind of a hybrid. "So we told everyone: do what you want," Price tweeted. "This stuff isn't hard."

That's an interesting perspective, but it may not be so easy, either, to re-engineer how work gets done. There are, after all, pros and cons to all sides of the debate.

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

But other workplaces have different structures and different needs. From talking with friends and contacts who have been working from home, things still seem to be in flux. I will be curious to see what happens in the year ahead.

Most new teleworkers want choices, survey found

According to a Statistics Canada snapshot taken this January, about 32 per cent of Canadian employees were doing the majority of their work from home. That's really remarkable, given that only four per cent of employees were doing that in 2016.

In other words, the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities of telework.

WATCH | Workplace consultant Andrew Au speaks with the CBC's Heather Hiscox about how the pandemic has changed assumptions about remote work:

Statistics Canada was evidently intrigued enough by the work-from-home crowd that it added some questions about preferences to its subsequent February labour force survey.

The results are worth noting.

"Overall, 80 per cent of new teleworkers indicated that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over," said the agency's subsequent report. It also noted that most work-from-home employees were at least as productive at home as they were at the office, although barriers and problems — from feelings of isolation to low internet bandwidth — were flagged.

"This pandemic has been all about having more time at home," a younger dad told me a few months ago, as we were talking about a story. As our conversation, which took place toward the end of the day, wrapped up, he enthused about getting ready to take his son out for a walk. I was struck by how much he was enjoying what had been commuting time as extra family time.

Interestingly, the Statistics Canada survey found that new teleworkers were not necessarily working less. In fact, 35 per cent of those surveyed said they were working longer hours than before. (Just three per cent said they were working shorter hours.)

Expect hybrid models to develop

Personally, I'm looking forward to being back in the office. I miss the hubbub and white noise of the newsroom, the "hallway conversations" that spark ideas, the collaboration of being together. Videoconferencing has been great, but, yes, those screens can be exhausting.

But I can clearly see the value of hybrid models. A friend of mine in Ontario is hoping her employer will allow her to keep working at home, at least for much of the week. Her ordinary commuting time adds up to well over two hours a day.

Looker_Studio/Shutterstock
Looker_Studio/Shutterstock

Work-from-home has not been an even playing field. It's been well demonstrated already that middle-class (and higher) workers have benefited most from this flexibility. Entry-level and lower-income employees have not enjoyed the same options. (As I wrote in a prior column, many front-line workers, including in supermarkets, were expected to take considerable risks during the pandemic.)

At this point, though, it seems clear there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach to the new workplace. My hunch is that the word "hybrid" is going to be used frequently as we work things out, paying attention to what employers require and what employees desire.

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

"Part of the time makes sense," he said. "All of the time is a very different scenario."

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