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Workplace changes may stay

Along with many other changes to our lives, the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps answered longstanding questions about whether or not large-scale telecommuting would work. It does, because it’s had to.

Research from Statistics Canada, for instance, found that 40 per cent of Canadians have jobs that could be done at home, a number that’s likely rising as new technology most of us hadn’t heard of in January has become mainstream today.

Widespread lockdowns early on in the crisis were followed by a staged reopening of the economy, forcing many businesses to adjust to a work-from-home scenario. Many have embraced it, though perhaps not to the extent of Floradale-based Boxbrite, which has decided to make the practice a permanent fixture.

With an office located in Leon Kehl’s basement, the software development company had cubicles for the seven employees, a prayer room and a common area before COVID struck. The space made physical distancing hard to maintain, and the company decided that they would work from home indefinitely. After much success, including doubling the staff to 14 employees, Kehl decided that a central office was no longer needed.

For Kehl the tradeoff between the risks and the human interaction at an office was not a balanced one, equating the situation to working in an office with asbestos.

“How would we feel if … they discovered asbestos in our building? And the solution was ‘wear a mask when you come into the building. We won’t deal with this – it’s just easier for us to have you wear a mask or distance or just avoid that area of building?’ You would hate going to work, wouldn’t you?”

For a company  building software and solutions to help the solar industry, the green aspects of working from home also made sense. Workers who no longer have to commute help reduce CO2 emissions, for example.

Kehl has embraced the transition. He’s allowing employees to place dibs on items from the office, as well as a $500 stipend to help adapt their home spaces into a productive environment.

Switching to a remote workplace environment also allows the company to draw on a wider range of talent; for example, a new hire at the company operates from home in Turkey. 

Through the transition, Kehl said he’s trying to maintain some aspects of a shared workspace – the likes of lunchroom, water cooler conversations and casual interactions – despite the remote locations.

“One of the things we have are standing meeting rooms where when you start your work, you drop in and you say ‘hi’ to people like you would normally. That took a bit to catch on, because it’s not what we normally do with this technology, but it’s really starting to prove helpful for that aspect that we were getting from offices, the intangibles,” said Kehl.

While not every business will be able to go as completely decentralized as Boxbrite has, there is a major shift underway. A Conference Board of Canada survey found that prior to the pandemic, ninety per cent of businesses had fewer than 20 per cent of their employees working remotely. Now, nearly two-thirds have 60 per cent of their employees working from home.

Likewise, an Environics Research study found work-from-home numbers grew from nine per cent before the pandemic to 31 per cent by March 31. A month later, that number had almost doubled again.

Many organizations have been forced to make changes on the fly, from software companies already more accustomed to remote work right through to public schools and universities. How much of the shift remains permanent remains to be seen.

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