Only a fraction of employees who began working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic have returned to full-time office work, and that has ramifications for everything from how workplaces are run to where we live — and whether the small businesses that surround office buildings survive.

Nearly three-quarters of the 3.4 million Canadians who began working from home at the start of the crisis were still working remotely in August, according to Labour Force Survey data released by Statistics Canada on September 4. And another survey suggests many of those new remote employees would like to continue working from home indefinitely. 

That research, conducted by Maru/Blue on behalf of ADP Canada, found that 45% of survey respondents would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week. Another 15% would like to work remotely one or two days a week.

That’s in part because of fear of the virus itself, the survey found. Of the 12% who said they were anxious about returning to their former work locations, 56% said they were worried about contracting the novel coronavirus. Another 13% said they didn’t know how they could meet their COVID-era family responsibilities while working outside of the home — things like caring for elderly family members or children whose schools could close if there’s an outbreak.

A future of more flexible work?

The survey also found that young people were more likely to believe that the pendulum is swinging permanently in favour of flexible work. 44% of respondents aged 18 to 34 said they believe their employers will implement more flexible policies within the next five years, including flextime and remote work; 28% said they believe most people will work remotely by then.

The online survey of 1,538 Canadians working full and part time was completed between Aug. 10 and 20. The comparable margin of error for this study was +/-2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Local business fallout

Many individuals have been able to cut their spending while remaining gainfully employed however, it has had a devastating effect on the businesses that are built up around workplaces — from the cobblers and dry cleaners in the lower levels of office buildings to the pubs where people eat lunch or gather for pints after work. Larry Isaacs, president of the Firkin Group of Pubs, said the pandemic has been “disastrous” for the chain of 30 pubs. “There’s no Christmas parties, there’s no cocktail parties, no lunch parties, so where is the revenue going to be driven from throughout the winter when all these people are working from home?”

By the looks of things, office numbers won’t return to previous levels any time in the near future. Emily Brine, interim chief talent officer of accounting firm KPMG Canada, said the company will be bringing a maximum of 20% of its 8,000 workers back to their offices across the country in the coming months — less in places like Toronto, where 20% would be above maximum group sizes allowed by public health. “More broadly speaking, we’ve had far more appeal from our employee base to work from home than to go to the office,” she said. 

That’s leading to conversations about how much office space the company will need going forward, and what kind “Do we have hoteling space versus broader collaboration space, more white boards, less office cubicle space?” Brine said. “Many organizations and certainly a lot of our clients are talking about this as well.”

The quest for more space

But as the months of remote work wear on, some Canadians are concluding that if they don’t need to work downtown, they may not want to live there, either. “We were hunting [for] a two-bedroom condo in core downtown, so we could just walk to our office every day,” said Jinesh Sheth. 

But when the pandemic hit, he and his wife, Puja Shah, found themselves working in very tight quarters in their rental apartment, sometimes interrupting each other’s video meetings. The couple works in information technology for the finance industry, and both of their employers have indicated that at least part-time remote work will be allowed going forward. So they pivoted their purchasing plan and bought a four-bedroom house in suburban Ajax, Ont., for the same amount they would have spent on a condo downtown. 

Darren Fleming, CEO of commercial real estate company Real Strategy in Ottawa, said moves like theirs are bound to have profound effects on the “ecosystem” of businesses that surround office buildings. “It means the barbershop that only did business with office tenants during 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, suddenly may not have anybody to cut hair with,” he said.

“We’re already seeing a shift to people moving to the suburbs and residential, because if they’re going to be working from home … maybe they’re going to need a second bedroom. I think it’s a little bit early to say. But fundamentally, I think there’s been a change in the way we work. And it’s going to be very interesting.”

Source: CBC