Get a comfy desk chair — remote work is probably here to stay. Long after the pandemic is over, employees at flexible workplaces could see more opportunities to work from home, sparking a potential decline in urban living and a “rural boom” instead, says the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In a report released on February 11, the think tank based out of Ryerson University identified virtual workspaces as one of the most enduring changes to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, with implications for how people find work and where they choose to live. “More and more Canadians have been making the shift from in-person activities to virtual ones,” the study says. “COVID-19 has significantly accelerated this shift, meaning more and more Canadians are living, working, and playing online.”

According to Statistics Canada, 40% of workers shifted to remote work following the pandemic lockdowns. Businesses both big and small have since made changes that are expected to remain in place after restrictions are lifted. Two examples of this are Shopify, which announced in May that it would move its operations entirely online, and the Conference Board of Canada which announced it was selling its head office back in July.

The concept of working from home anywhere is also gaining traction, the Brookfield study finds, as countries such as Barbados offer incentives for remote workers to visit. Barbados is offering a 12-month work visa for remote visitors, while Estonia has a “Digital Nomad Visa” that allows workers from outside the E.U., whether working as freelancers or for foreign companies, to work legally in the country for up to one year.

“The most likely scenario is that people don’t get to an office five days a week anymore,” said Heather Russek, a researcher at Brookfield and one of the study’s four authors. “Maybe they only go into the office one or two days a week, or maybe once a month.”

The shift in work has also resulted in employees working longer hours, the study found with 55% of employees working on weekends during the pandemic. “As companies and workers adjust to the new reality of virtual and geographically distributed teams, this may contribute to changes in talent recruitment, a greater blurring of lines between work and leisure, and social isolation,” the study said.

The changes also represent new population trends, with urban economic hubs seeing higher vacancy rates as workers seek cheaper housing and open space in the surrounding rural areas. Though Canada’s rural population has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, the study notes that Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada have all seen a record number of Canadians leaving big cities for greener space since the pandemic began. Canada’s rural areas may experience “unprecedented population growth in the coming years” as urban housing markets skyrocket, remote work opportunities increase and millennials search for bigger houses that are suitable to accommodate home offices and remote learning.

These migrations could spur local economic development opportunities as demand increases for restaurants, shops, services and other businesses, though it would also represent a hollowing-out of Canadian municipalities. Downtown Calgary, for example, hit high office vacancies early in the pandemic, reaching nearly 30% by September 2020. The study theorizes that, following these trends, urban cores could face a loss of mainstreet retail and restaurants, as well as a reduced demand for work-related travel and conferences.

The report, titled “Yesterday’s Gone,” identifies eight “megatrends” that have developed in Canada during the pandemic and their implications for the labour market. The report’s findings are not definitive, Russek notes. “We can’t say that, for sure, there will be a rural boom, for example. But we have seen that a number of people are leaving urban centres right now. That’s because of remote work, and because people are looking for green space, more space and cheaper housing.”

Source: Toronto Star