Terrasses were packed this past weekend – people are demonstrating how much we are all social animals and need to talk, touch and socialize in person. And all I hear about these past few days is getting back to the office.
Funny thing about that. From the beginning of agriculture to the Industrial Revolution and development of the office, the way we work has, is, and will continue to change over time. The office as we know it is barely 200 years old and is unlikely to survive much longer. The changes wrought by the pandemic have been sudden and dramatic. And before I launch into a diatribe about how we’ll work in the future, let’s consider for a moment, the questions on the minds of many people whose entire work experience except for the last year or so has been in an office.
There is no set “re-opening” date for everyone and no one is expecting that there will be an immediate or even gradual return to a pre-pandemic schedule. Statistics Canada tells us that at the beginning of 2021, 32 per cent of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 worked most of their hours from home, compared with only 4 per cent in 2016. Of all these new “teleworkers”, 90 per cent reported being at least as productive, i.e. accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as they did previously in their usual place of work. More than half (58 per cent) reported accomplishing about the same amount of work per hour while roughly one third (32 per cent) reported accomplishing more work per hour. Various other surveys over the last year as well as executives and other employees I’ve talked to are almost unanimous that the presence of everyone who was in an office in March 2020 is no longer necessary or feasible.
People who work have not been idle about acting on their newly-articulated preferences. A sizable number have moved farther away than a commute. Four out of five told StatCan that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over. Corporate executives are now having to come up with flexible schedules that will accommodate their own beliefs that face-to-face time is valuable for collaborating and mentoring and the preferences of their employees who want to work from home.
This is a fascinating development. Bosses are having to think about what’s good and inclusive and right for their employees as well as what’s good for the business. They are having to dwell much more than they may have in the past on the fact that their employees are unique and valuable.
Clearly, there are occupations where such flexibility is much more difficult or even impossible – think teachers (they told StatCan they want to go back to school) and other service workers. These people have past grievances about their status on the “respect” scale of pay and working conditions – now they hold a crucial role in how the post-pandemic return to work will play out. Is the teachers’ support service workers strike the canary in the coal mine?
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, says that “given the astonishing speed with which companies have adopted the technology of virtual work, and the extent to which most employees don’t want to revert to past ways of working, executives are seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset work using a hybrid model—one that… will allow us to make our work lives more purposeful, productive, agile, and flexible.”
As of right now, only one in seven people feel that they have a meaningful job. Liselotte Lyngsø, co-founder, Future Navigator believes that “the upcoming generations want to be a part of a meaningful journey. They will either want to find ways to make large sums of money in a short period of time so they can be free to enjoy other aspects of life, or they will want to be a part of a movement that creates a better world… They will decide when, how and where to work.”
The mood is definitely brightening.
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Health Centre.