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Some pandemic-related changes are likely to be permanent

To say the pandemic has prompted changes in our lives would be an understatement. Most of them are temporary, however. Most, but not all, as we’re likely to see some permanent shifts in employment and, on the upside, working from home.

Where telecommuting was long discussed but not widely implemented, joined more recently by video meetings, the coronavirus crisis forced us to move quickly. To our surprise, it’s worked out quite well. So much so that some companies are looking to make remote work an option, or even the norm.

That has the potential to reduce the demand for office space and, eventually, to see people leave larger urban centres in search of bigger, cheaper real estate and a better quality of life. That would be a financial boon for those renting space – commercial and residential – in places such as Toronto, not to mention reducing time wasted on commuting.

There’s also a commensurate environmental benefit, one seen clearly in the early stages of the pandemic when the roads were joyously, albeit unsustainably empty of traffic.

Along with empty roads, we saw offices vacated in favour of makeshift home workspaces. That took some juggling, but most Canadians seem to think it was a positive change, one worth continuing even when the pandemic is a thing of the past.

An Angus Reid Institute survey this summer found only one-third of Canadians working remotely expect to resume working from the office as consistently as they did pre-pandemic.

Among those working from home – just under one-third of Canada’s adult population – just 36 per cent said they will likely go back to their place of work when COVID-19 concerns subside.

“While executives and HR managers twist themselves into pretzels over the long-term implications for all their currently unused office space – Canadian workers have a clarity of vision around what the future of work will entail. Most who are working from home today do not anticipate a return to the office full-time,” reads the report.

“Indeed, just 36 per cent say this, while one-in-five foresee working from home permanently. The largest group, 44 per cent say that they will be working from home more than they did before, but it will be a mix of both.”

Of course, not everybody gets the chance to work from home. There’s no online option for hospitality workers – the group hit hardest by efforts to curb the spread of the virus, many of whom had no work, let alone the remote kind – and others in a host of hands-on jobs. The pandemic has permanently shuttered a large number of businesses. Changes in our shopping patterns, particularly online outlets, may become ingrained even after the crisis is over.

In an ever-shifting job market, more change isn’t welcome news on most fronts. Today’s situation has put a new urgency into the need for reversing inequities in the system, prompting renewed talk in some kind of universal basic income, for instance.

Research by Georges A. Tanguay and Ugo Lachapelle of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) points to the potential for growing inequalities.

“The possibility of working remotely isn’t available to everyone, with one Canadian study estimating that only 44 per cent of jobs are compatible with telecommuting. Remote work is particularly common among university graduates, managers and professionals, but its practice also depends on the sector and the nature of the job. Finance, for example, compared to manufacturing, is more suitable to remote work. Consequently, many workers are deprived of an alternative that allows them to continue working during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote in an article earlier this year, noting those who already have advantages tend to benefit.

“The ongoing crisis therefore amplifies inequalities when it comes to financial and work-life balance benefits. If there’s a broader future adoption of telecommuting, a likely result of the current situation, that would still mean a large portion of the working population, many of them low-income workers, would be disadvantaged.”

Amidst the concerns, an actual shift in living patterns could prove a bonanza. On the downside, we’re already seeing a shift away from Toronto and the GTA having a negative – i.e. upward – impact on housing prices in Waterloo Region. For working remotely to be a real positive, the settlement patterns have to be into yet-smaller locations, the kinds of communities that have experienced contraction.

It’s possible that there will be a ripple effect that eventually spills out well beyond the GTA and greater Golden Horseshoe. A Globe and Mail story this week notes there’s already been a drop in demand for the small highrise condos that are the norm in Toronto.

“Developers are pumping out studios and one-bedroom condos in the Toronto region, even as demand for the smaller units has plummeted during the pandemic.

“Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many office workers to work from home, demand for bigger living spaces and backyards has exploded, with house sales jumping in most of Canada,” reads the piece.

“Of the new condo project launches in the Toronto region this year, studios and one-bedrooms account for 61 per cent of the new units, according to new data from Urbanation Inc. Two-bedrooms make up 32 per cent, while three-bedrooms, penthouses and other larger spaces make up the balance,” with the story noting condos in the city of Toronto have been the only type of property to lose value, the average selling price of a condo fell 3 per cent to $640,208 in the 12 months to November.

People leaving the city and people looking for more space because they’re working at home both drive down demand for highrise living. That’s a trend worth supporting, especially in conjunction with policies to decrease the population – a win-win for lower prices and the environment.

Long before now, of course, we’d seen the impact of crowding and expense in Toronto lead to suburban sprawl, first in Peel and then into Milton, Guelph, Cambridge and points west. None of that is sustainable, either, as long-distance commuting isn’t the answer.

With remote work, geography is no longer a hurdle to be overcome. It’s not a panacea of course, and it risks accelerating inequities and giving rise to two new divides, two classes of those who can work from home and those whose jobs don’t allow it.

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