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New poll finds two-thirds of Canadians believe working from home is the new normal and 68 per cent say employers will lose top talent if they don’t give employees flexibility over their working locations

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Cheryl Chan Alessia Yaworsky, who lives downtown, says she enjoys the flexible work option of working from home, which lets her get appointments done during the day, even pack up her laptop and work from her grandmother's house in the Okanagan for a week. Alessia Yaworsky, who lives downtown, says she enjoys the flexible work option of working from home, which lets her get appointments done during the day, even pack up her laptop and work from her grandmother’s house in the Okanagan for a week. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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Alessia Yaworsky had a head start on working from home.

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When she started working at Telus a decade ago, fresh out of university, Yaworsky was pleasantly surprised to learn she could split her time between the telecommunications company’s downtown Vancouver office and her home.

So when COVID-19 hit, she was set — a sit-and-stand desk, an extra monitor, a dedicated work desk tucked in the corner of her apartment, all the communications tools and programs remote workers need in a home office.

But switching from working at home a couple times a week to full time still required some adjustments.

“One of the things that had been a challenge for me was I just had to work that tiny bit harder to maintain connections with people I might not work with on a daily basis, but would run into at the office every now and then,” said Yaworsky, a marketing manager.

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Six months ago, in a bid to create more social connections, her team started holding meetings where the purpose was not to talk about work, but the latest TV shows and favourite books.

Yaworsky said she enjoys the flexible work option, which lets her get appointments done during the day, even pack up her laptop and work from her grandmother’s house in the Okanagan for a week.

“We all know life doesn’t happen on a schedule,” she said. “I don’t think I can ever go back entirely to the office. It’s completely one of the reasons I’ve been with the organization as long as I have.”

Figures from Statistics Canada show that before the pandemic, teleworking made up only four to five per cent of all paid work days in Canada.

Working remotely from home did present initial challenges for Telus marketing manager Alessia Yaworsky. ‘I just had to work that tiny bit harder to maintain connections with people I might not work with on a daily basis, but would run into at the office every now and then,’ she says. Working remotely from home did present initial challenges for Telus marketing manager Alessia Yaworsky. ‘I just had to work that tiny bit harder to maintain connections with people I might not work with on a daily basis, but would run into at the office every now and then,’ she says. Photo by Handout

That number skyrocketed as the COVID crisis forced millions of workers around the world to abandon their cubicles for home in a massive and protracted social experiment unprecedented in modern times.

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In May 2020, about 35 per cent of workers worked remotely because of COVID-19, according to U.S. data. Statistics Canada estimated about a third of paid Canadian workers worked mostly from home in early 2021, compared to four per cent in 2016.

Of course, teleworking only applies to jobs where it is feasible to work from home, typically white-collar office jobs. A significant segment of workers — those who work in health care, education, hospitality, retail, first responders or worked in manufacturing and resource industries — did not have that option. But it is clear the pandemic has prompted a global rethink on how we work and the future of workspaces.

“The big question for the future when the pandemic is finally behind us is: How does this play out?” said Jock Finlayson, senior policy adviser at the Business Council of B.C. “Do we revert back to the pre-pandemic norm or will we see a permanent shift in this (remote working) direction?”

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The new normal

Finlayson said research suggests the work-from-home phenomenon will stick, and hybrid work arrangement like Yaworsky’s will become more common.

“Once the pandemic ends, a common pattern across large and mid-sized organizations will be to have employees in jobs where remote work is feasible devote roughly two days per week to WFH (equating to 40 per cent of an average work week for full-time employees),” Finlayson wrote in a report.

Jock Finlayson, senior policy adviser at the Business Council of British Columbia, an organization representing 220 large and mid-size B.C. companies. Jock Finlayson, senior policy adviser at the Business Council of British Columbia, an organization representing 220 large and mid-size B.C. companies. Photo by Business Council of British Columbia

In B.C., that’s about 400,000 to 450,000 jobs (excluding the self-employed) that could be done largely from home, representing 18 to 20 per cent of all paid workers in the province — a quadrupling from pre-pandemic levels.

Many of those who had a taste of WFH life are reluctant to give it up fully. Up to 80 per cent of those who had experienced remote working during the pandemic have said they’d like to continue doing so at least half their working hours, according to a Statistics Canada study.

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Fans of teleworking say working from home reduces commute times, improves work-life balance and maintains or improves their productivity. People with children also appreciate the flexibility and ability to intersperse work with chores or child care.

“When this pandemic finishes, whenever that happens to be, we are not going back to pre-pandemic levels,” said Jason Allsopp, vice-president of Leger’s Vancouver office.

A new Leger poll asking Canadians how they feel about going back to work found that workers expect to spend less time in the office. In fact, if required to go back full-time, 37 per cent said they’d grudgingly return but will look for a different job.

About two-thirds of Canadians believe working from home is the new normal, the poll finds, while about 68 per cent say employers will lose top talent if they don’t give employees flexibility over their working locations. Just under a third value that flexibility so much they’d be willing to accept lower pay if it means getting a say over work arrangements.

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While many tech companies have indicated they would allow or encourage remote work at least part-time in the future — Twitter has said it will allow employees to work from home “forever” while Dropbox and Spotify have announced work-from-anywhere policies — many other employers are wary.

Employers are worried about the loss of organizational cohesion, lack of team building and the difficulty in integrating new employees or mentoring more junior employees. They are also worried about the impact on productivity. Studies have shown mixed results, noted Finlayson, adding it is simply too early to tell.

But having 18 to 20 per cent of the province’s total workforce work remotely, even part-time, would have major implications on commercial real estate, businesses that support office workers, even the vitality of a central business district. It could also require future changes to legislation and regulation around employment standards and occupational health and safety standards.

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Yes, acknowledged Finlayson, “the vibrancy of the downtown CBD (central business district) could be somewhat reduced going forward because of the work-from-home phenomenon. But it’s hard to quantify. It’s speculation at this point.”

Dan Jordan, a commercial real estate broker at Colliers International who specializes in office leasing and sales, is skeptical about whether work at home is sustainable, even desirable, once our COVID-19 crisis is finally history. Dan Jordan, a commercial real estate broker at Colliers International who specializes in office leasing and sales, is skeptical about whether work at home is sustainable, even desirable, once our COVID-19 crisis is finally history. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

Offices of the future will look different

Dan Jordan, a commercial real estate broker at Colliers International who specializes in office leasing and sales, has a more rosy view on the future of offices. He’s skeptical whether work at home is sustainable, even desirable, when COVID-19 is history.

“We’ve been able to make do the last 18 months because we are all in the same boat of a remote work environment,” he said. But in the case of major national law firms that make up many of Jordan’s clients, for example, “as time marches on, how do you educate your more junior people? They’re being given files to work on, and they’re performing that work efficiently now, but how will they grow their business and find their clients and interact at client events?

“Over a five- to 10-year period, there’s a bigger impact on the long-term health of companies from that.”

So far, Vancouver’s office market has proved remarkably resilient.

At the peak of the pandemic’s fear and uncertainty last year, the market didn’t crater and rents for downtown offices tapered by 10 to 20 per cent, said Jordan.

“We are coming from a place of such low vacancy and such high rates, even if we took our foot off the gas for nine months or so … things didn’t fall off a cliff.”

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The office vacancy rate for Vancouver’s downtown core is currently at 6.7 per cent, according to a Colliers report, up from 4.6 per cent at the same time last year (an office vacancy rate of about four per cent is considered full).

But Jordan believes the post-COVID recovery is well underway. The activity started in January. Tenant demand tracked by Colliers, considered a precursor of deals, has doubled since the end of 2020. And more office towers are on the way, with nearly 3.5 million square feet of office space under construction downtown.

If there’s one trend COVID had halted, it’s companies trying to squeeze more people into less space, said Jordan. “People aren’t going to accept being sat on top of each other.”

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Jason Santeford, managing director of architecture and design firm Gensler’s Vancouver office, said he believes offices are here to stay, just in a different form.

The office of the future will look different for different organizations based on their needs, but generally they will be much more about collaboration and connection, with a focus on health and wellness. It is also critical that offices have the technology to ensure equity for employees across all work modes, whether that’s in-person work, remote or a hybrid, said Gensler.

He’s already seeing a trend towards repurposing traditional “heads-down space” into collaborative spaces and amenity spaces. Outdoor features, such as revitalized rooftops and small intimate decks, are also in demand.

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Outdoor features, such as revitalized rooftops and small intimate decks, are in demand, says architecture firm Gensler. Outdoor features, such as revitalized rooftops and small intimate decks, are in demand, says architecture firm Gensler. Photo by Devon Banks Photography

Some companies are considering doing away with dedicated desks for every employee and replacing them with “hoteling stations” that allows employees to reserve office space for temporary use.

Workers generally aren’t keen on them, said Santeford, but Gensler’s research has found that if companies counterbalance that with workplace flexibility, people get onboard.

An uncomfortable transition

As workers head back to their desks — or shared desks — the shift back to a physical work space is yet another significant transition for employees.

“It’s normal for people to feel apprehensive about going back to the office,” said University of B.C. psychologist Lynn Alden.

Some are concerned about catching COVID-19, while others might just be stressed out about navigating a new and unfamiliar situation. Some people who had spent the last year and a half in the protective cocoon of home and social isolation could be concerned about facing co-workers, making small talk, or practising those rusty social skills again.

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“For some people, they feel their social anxiety around people had gotten worse as a result of being isolated. The discomfort has gotten worse,” said Alden. “And certainly when I talk to people in my workplace, people report feeling disoriented and a little bit depressed about the whole situation. This has gone on so long. It’s starting to wear on people.”

She advises employers who are preparing for a return to work to be clear with employees about public health guidelines and health and safety protocols in place to prevent any uncertainty and ambiguity, which leads to anxiety.

There will have to be some recognition on the part of employers that it’ll take workers a while to “ramp up to where they were,” she said.

And workers returning to the office should also give themselves the time and space to settle back in, especially for introverts or shyer people.

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“It’ll take a while for those social skills to come online,” she said. “Don’t rush yourself. Just realize that things are different now. It is going to take some readjustment.”

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